A mountain to climb

11th October 1996 at 01:00
What would it take to provide the staff to teach primary languages nationwide? Brendan O'Malley finds out.

Parents want it, about one in four schools already do it, But to ensure every child studies a language at primary school one massive obstacle would have to be overcome - the lack of teachers with the necessary expertise. Any retraining programme would have to be immense. Since the introduction of the national curriculum the number of trainees taking up languages options on initial primary training courses has fallen away. At present there is at most only a handful of training institutions offering such an option and between them each year they are turning out fewer than l00 qualified teachers with language expertise and language teaching skills.

Paul Hickman, senior lecturer in French at La Sainte Union College of Higher Education, Southampton, warns: "There has to be a strand in a large number of training programmes to maintain linguistic expertise and develop methodology and expertise if teaching is to be effective. Even at primary level you can't get away with minimal language knowledge. You have to have the background there. They have to be trained."

But so far there hasn't even been agreement on what level of language qualification primary staff need to be able to teach the subject. Opinions vary from a GCSE to a language degree. Headteachers have been known to say, "You've got an O-level, why don't you take this class?" because they see providing any sort of language lesson as a useful marketing ploy.

Leading figures in language teaching have considered the problem more carefully. Christine Wilding, general secretary of the Association for Language learning, suggests that a full GCSE and A-level standard in at least the linguistic aspects of the language studied might be enough. However, trainers already involved in grooming such teachers are convinced that post A-level knowledge plus an understanding of primary language methods are essential.

Paul Hickman says: "I think they would have to get to at least A-level and then maintain it and have contact with the foreign country. There would need to be a concerted effort across the country to introduce an option of studying a language in a training degree, a strand through from Year 1 to Year 4 to maintain it, or even improve it and make it more fluent. Otherwise you forget it."

Christine Wilding argues that potential changes to post-16 assessment, particularly if a more general baccalaureate-style exam became the norm, could allow potential primary teachers to keep developing their language skills without having to do a full A-level. "I have always said there needs to be a long-term strategy," she says, "so that in future a primary teacher would have done a foreign language up to GCSE level, but would need to keep the language going between 16 and l9 and incorporate it into initial teacher training. I don't think that other areas of languages at A-level are necessary, but the linguistic skills need to be as high as possible. They need to be able to opt to do languages in primary training."

An alternative suggestion has been made by Christina Skarbek, a senior lecturer in modern languages at Westminster College, Oxford, which also trains primary teachers in languages. She does not think relying on a GCSE is good enough for straight language teaching. But, recognising the scale of the obstacle that has to be surmounted if all primaries are to offer a language, she thinks teachers could get by at that level if the aims were more limited.

She says: "I wonder, if their language is not of good level, whether more useful work could be done in language awareness and preparation for language teaching." She explains that even the type of student who remains not particularly good at French despite receiving good training can still be well prepared to use the many non-specialist resources that exist. "I think they could do a lot more useful work enhancing work that will be done in secondary school. For instance, making children aware of how language works, enhancing skills like reading, listening and pronunciation - and using songs, stories and games, to maintain motivation in the foreign language. There are very well made authentic cassettes and videos which provide the perfect model.

"The other part is to make the children aware of why they are doing it at all. Language is about more than ordering a cup of coffee. There's cultural awareness, recognising differences - the European dimension that schools are supposed to be doing but don't."

Paul Hickman agrees that language awareness, as well as opening up children's minds to Europe and other ways of life, can help address an area in which British education has been fundamentally weak in recent decades in both languages and English. He points to the stark contrast between British students and students who come from abroad on exchange schemes.

"Their grammatical knowledge is right up to scratch but some of our mainstream students are very poor on grammar. It was considered in the Seventies and Eighties that it was inhibiting for children's expression for too much emphasis to be put on the detail, on correctness. But 40 years ago we had to parse sentences - break them into component parts.

"That sort of thing is coming back. Students training as teachers are suddenly having to look at language objectively and why children make mistakes. And language awareness will help children along that route. It can even help them come to terms with aspects of their own mother tongue."

The problem for the moment, however, remains sparcity of suitable training courses and the poor take-up on the few that do exist. LSU's PGCE course did not have enough takers this year to make it viable, even though few other institutions offer a language. Twelve out of a l00-strong intake chose it last year, but whether it runs in future depends on the number of language graduates among the intake - and this may be a growing problem since, according to the Association for Language Learning, the numbers being admitted to language degree courses are shrinking.

Paul Hickman thinks encouragement could be given to primary trainees by building modules into their courses which involve spending time abroad in, say, a French training institution and going into French schools, to develop the language expertise they need.

Christina Skarbek thinks all student teachers could be required to study a language and maintain it -after all they all trained in science. But she concedes there is a mountain to climb: "It would take many years, a lot of money and a lot of teachers."

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