Coherence and confidence on the horizon?

16th June 2000 at 01:00
The proposals reflect much ofwhat teachers have been calling for, says John Trafford of ALL

Revolutionary in spirit it may not be, comprehensive it certainly is. The Nuffield Inquiry is to be welcomed for the thoroughness of its overview of provision for languages in the UK, and for the wide-ranging proposals it makes to help us raise our game.

In the Association for Language Learning, we see many of our policy discussions and statements of recent years mirrored in the Nuffield recommendations. Two in particular stand out.

The first, and surely the most important and urgent in the report, is the need for coherence. We have long lamented the ad hoc nature of language education across the sectors, and the resulting loss of expertise to the country, as insufficient numbers of learners leap the hurdles to emerge with true linguistic competence.

Nuffield proposes the appointment of a languages supremo. This is a novel idea which deserves serious consideration. The inquiry provides ample evidence of the lack of an overview of language learning through the education system.

Who is monitoring the steep fall in the number of dual linguists in key stage 4 and the declining post-16 take-up? More importantly, who is taking steps to halt these trends? A high-profile figurehead to speak with authority when policies are inadequate, or indeed colliding with each other, could do much to carry the Nuffield torch forward.

To be resisted, though, is the temptation to set up a toothless "Lingo Quango" (not, it must be said, proposed by Nuffield). This could only add further confusion to the multiplicity of bodies currently influencing and implementing policy. Clarity of direction is everything.

The second area is that of early language learning. Evidence of national enthusiasm is plentiful, but present provision patchy. In the early 1990s, ALL suggested a long-term policy, aimed at full implementation about a decade later. P> Nuffield returns to this idea. It is a clear case where soundbite policy - create today, implement tomorrow, declare a success the day after - is not enough.

It should not be beyond our wit to ensure that future primary teachers have some foreign language competence and confidence, nor to support and disseminate the good practice that exists now. Nor should we be inhibited by the current teacher-supply crisis in secondary schools, though this requires separate and urgent action.

What will need to be addressed, though, is the present primary curriculum, increasingly narrowly focused on literacy, numeracy and the meeting of targets. In today's climate, Nuffield's aspirations to "international primary schools", using other languages to teach part of the curriculum, looks too high-risk a strategy for many schools to dream of.

We welcome also Nuffield's recognition of the linguistic wealth often unacknowledged on these shores, in those children and adults already competent in another language as a result of their heritage. This is expertise we seem to value little. It is through recognition and encouragement of these skills in many of our fellow citizens that true language awareness can begin.

The members of the Nuffield Inquiry and their secretary, Alan Moys, deserve much credit for the clarity and breadth of their vision. Given the will, their recommendations can be implemented. It is important to identify at which points we can break into the cycle of decline to inject new life.

Looking to foreign language competence as a key skill, along with the vogue for literacy, numeracy and ICT, could be the most telling way forward.

John Trafford is director of Initial Teacher Education at the University of Sheffield and president of the Association for Language Learning, 150 Railway Terrace, Rugby, Warwickshire CV21 3HN. Tel: 01788 546443. E-mail: www.languagelearn.

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