A lost language opportunity

25th October 1996 at 01:00
The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's conference on Languages in Primary Schools (October 7-8) was a disappointment. An opportunity to begin planning for the inevitable was lost, shrouded by appeals for caution.

Apart from enthusiastic support given by speakers from Austria, France and from British industry, the dominant message from the platform was one of reluctance to respond to the obvious: that our educational provision will not improve by comparison with all other developed countries and our children will continue to be disadvantaged until an international dimension is applied to the curriculum.

Such an improvement can be achieved by an early experience of languages. We can no longer claim that because "they all speak English, we needn't bother"; "they" are at least bi-lingual, so where is the advantage for us? It is also self-evident that, with English, "they" have a strong, effective lingua franca that allows them to choose their partners and, if they wish, to ignore Britain.

Given the rapid growth of languages in primary schools, the question does arise as to whether the spread and development will be left to individual schools, their parents and enlightened local education authorities or grasped nationally under the guidance and control of SCAA.

The commitment, optimism and evidence of successful experience represented among the body of 150 delegates were neither revealed nor celebrated to the full conference. Press coverage, too, seems to have been more influenced by academic opinion than by the reality of current practice.

Since applications from delegates were at least double the places, SCAA might usefully repeat the conference, in a different part of the country, but this time presenting a balanced debate with a proper case being made for a change in the national curriculum with the introduction of an additional language at the primary level. This first attempt was a classic example of people trying to find good reasons for not doing something better!

GEORGE VARNAVA National Association of Head Teachers 5 Wheatlands Lane Newbury Berkshire

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