A case of plus ca change again?

20th December 2002 at 00:00
The turn of the year provides an opportunity to think about the future. The Government's modern languages strategy, announced this week, is about nothing less than Britain's future role in Europe, and even the wider world. But have they thought hard enough?

Education Secretary Charles Clarke projects a future in which all junior school children will "have the opportunity" to study a language. There is to be "direct investment", teacher-training opportunities, more native-speaking assistants. There is not to be an official, standardised slot for languages, and the opportunities available will vary from place to place. There will be grades, but not specific expectations for 11-year-olds as there are in national curriculum subjects.

Mr Clarke has rightly taken on board that children learn a language best when they are young and wants them to have a chance from seven. Research shows that the ideal age is three to six. What he proposes is a halfway house, which reflects the nation's ambivalence towards Europe. If we want to play a significant role in the EU, and if we want children to "have the opportunity" to work in other countries, and to understand other people in the global village we inhabit, we have got to be serious about teaching other languages. That means giving them a proper place in the curriculum and the normal timetable.

As shown by today's TES poll of 100 schools, the difficulties can not be underestimated. For instance, less than a third thought teachers could take on the necessary training. Nevertheless, the rest of Europe does it. And in Wales, where every child learns two languages (English and Welsh), right from the start, this year's key stage 2 national test results in English were better than England's - 80 per cent compared with 75 per cent at level 4.

Mr Clarke's strategy is going some way, but not far enough. Without real commitment and conviction from the Government, this initiative could go the way of previous ones. England will continue to be the "language dunce" of Europe until there is the political will for it to be otherwise.

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