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Is sooner better?

In contrast to Labour last week, it was Europe rather than education which seemed to dominate the Conservative party conference. You don't need to be a Eurosceptic, however, to ask whether it really makes sense to talk about introducing foreign language learning into the overcrowded primary curriculum, when we cannot even manage to make it a convincing part of the common entitlement in secondary education.

Given the part early language learning increasingly plays in most European schools - including Scotland - it was a fair enough question for this week's School Curriculum and Assessment Authority conference to address. Is sooner better for language learning? Sensible answers probably depend on the aims of such teaching. And some will ask whether learning languages is really so important for us, given the position of English in the world.

What passes for national education policy certainly gives it a low priority. It is not only the arts that have been sidelined post-Dearing (see Eric Bolton opposite). True, more pupils are probably learning a language than ever before, thanks to the national curriculum. But what many are being offered falls short of the full, broad and balanced curriculum that was supposed to keep options open for future study.

The short-course language option - that is, short of the full GCSE - is a pretty unsatisfactory compromise. It was intended to provide flexibility and choice in a crowded key stage 4. In many instances, however, it is all that is available and therefore amounts to denial of the choice. In one comprehensive in five, the only language learning available at this level is a short course, according to the Secondary Heads Association survey reported in this week's Modern Languages Extra (centre pages). In 8 per cent of non-selective schools there is no language teaching at all at this stage.

The reason, in most cases, is that there are simply too few language teachers. The Government has made it a statutory requirement but failed to ensure the necessary teachers to provide it. Current language teacher training targets are not being met so vacancies - already more numerous for languages than any other subject - are bound to grow.

Falling entries for language A-levels threaten to exacerbate this situation. Meanwhile, the difficulty of replacing teachers with languages other than French deters schools from diversifying into other languages. The move to school-based teacher training is likely to further consolidate francophone domination, whatever our real commercial, cultural and political needs in Europe and the world.

So is it crazy to be contemplating the extension of foreign languages into primary schools where few teachers have the skill to teach them, when fewer than 100 teachers a year are suitably trained and where anyway there is strong pressure to cull the national curriculum to concentrate on the basics?

There is a case for greater language awareness at an early stage; the education of the ear as some have called it. It might even help with some of those basics. Do we understand our own language until we try to learn someone else's? The assumption that early language tasting would increase enthusiasm and language learning capability has yet to be proven. What is certain is that it will only happen if that experience is enjoyable, positive and relevant to what follows.

But then language teaching in all schools - not just primaries - requires a more coherent national policy to ensure proper planning and continuity between phases, greater diversification of languages, a broader sixth-form curriculum to include further language learning for all, and the recruitment, training, retraining and support of the teachers needed to do the job.

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