Drive on languages runs out of steam

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
Brendan O'Malley reports on a TESCentre for Information on Language Teaching and Research survey which shows there are formidable obstacles hindering the spread of languages other than French in schools.

The Government-backed movement to increase the numbers of pupils studying languages other than French is fast running out of steam and faces formidable obstacles in the future, according to a national survey of secondary schools and equivalents by The TES and the Centre for International Language Teaching and Research.

The survey results, based on 1,140 responses, indicate that 18 per cent of schools increased the number of pupils studying a first foreign language other than French (LOTF) in the past five years, but 4.7 per cent decreased the number and the vast majority made no change in provision, leaving a net rate of diversification of 13.3 per cent of schools. According to schools' plans for the next five years this rate of change will halve to 6.6 per cent.

The Government launched a drive to broaden the range of languages offered as a first or second foreign language with funding for a pilot scheme in 10 local authorities in England in 1988-90. But it now seems the push is losing momentum due to lack of suitable staff and pressure to build on French taught in primary schools.

The reasons most schools gave for diversifying in the past five years were a change in school policy, but local education authority policy and support has also played a significant role. However, among the reasons given for planning to diversify in future, the LEA factor has disappeared, reflecting the fall in local advisory support for language teaching.

In providing a first foreign language in Year 7, 54.7 per cent of schools offer French only; 30 per cent offer both French and German; 8.2 per cent offer French and Spanish; 0.9 per cent offer German only and 0.6 per cent offer Spanish only. Italian is offered to some pupils in 0.7 per cent of schools.

Close to one in five of schools which changed their provision during the past five years said there had been a decline in the number of pupils learning a language other than French. The biggest factor leading to their switch back was the difficulty of finding staff qualified in two or more languages. More than half of all schools which have been looking for staff during the same period have had problems securing staff with two languages and 70 per cent of those were looking for a combination of French and German.

For instance, at Holte School, an 11-16 comprehensive in inner-city Birmingham, provision was split between German and French as a first foreign language for more than a decade, but this academic year the school dropped German because it could not find a teacher who could teach both French and German or even just German. Andrew Birch, head of languages, explains: "When our German teacher left, we struggled to get a replacement. We thought pupils were suffering because they were having to go for months without a proper German teacher, so we phased it out."

Similarly at Sutherland School, a 660-pupil, 11-16 local-authority maintained school on the outskirts of Telford, Shropshire, German as a first foreign language is being phased out because the school has not been able to secure a qualified German teacher.

The massive number of schools unable to find staff suggests it could be a significant factor in holding back many who want to diversify but have yet to do so.

This staffing concern is rarely mentioned by schools planning to reverse diversification in the next five years. But that may well change because so far schools have only experienced one year's effects of the new school-based initial teacher training arrangements. These are hitting the quality and number of placements colleges can offer students teachers of languages other than French.

Among schools planning to reverse diversification a new main reason has strongly emerged. The wish to build on French taught in feeder primary schools whether for reasons of continuity, achieving higher standards or in response to parental pressure, accounts for 38.5 per cent of all reasons given. This could grow as a negative influence on diversification because the number of primaries offering a language is rising all the time and, except in Scotland, they almost exclusively teach French.

Ironically, the survey found that it is in those areas where the local authority offers strong support or has been instrumental in getting primary French off the ground, that secondary schools have the strongest incentive to drop German or Spanish as a first language and focus on French.

Take, for instance, Dumbarton Academy, on the Clyde, where provision of the first foreign language was for two years equally divided between the first-year intake of 140 12 to 13-year-olds. This year the Academy switched back to offering only French as a first foreign language because the five feeder primaries all recently opted to offer French, some of them under Strathclyde's primary modern languages project.

John McDonald, deputy rector, says: "The language the pupils are being exposed to in the main primaries is French, so it makes sense for them to continue French. If some primaries had decided to offer French and some German, then indeed that may have made a difference to what we are doing."

Nearby at the Vale of Leven Academy, south of Loch Lomond, the opposite has happened. Since the local primaries - also in the Strathclyde project - all opted to concentrate on German about five years ago, the language has become the main first foreign language studied at the secondary school. "German used to be our second language, but it has changed to be the most popular," says headteacher Neil McKinnon. "About 50 per cent more pupils opt for German at Standard grade than French."

George Varnava, president of the National Association of Headteachers, says that secondaries switching languages to fall into line with French taught at feeder schools are missing the point of language teaching at primary level. "The learning of one language facilitates the learning of another," he says. "The natural enthusiasm of children requires that foreign languages be taught not in an academic or linear form but to gain experience in another linguistic and cultural dimension."

But Christine Wilding, general secretary of the Association for Language Learning, believes the problem demonstrates the need to develop a carefully thought-out long-term national strategy for primary language teaching rather than leaving it to grow randomly.

The other aspect of diversification is the promoting of a second or third foreign language which, by definition, ensures that some language other than French is taught. The survey shows that 80 per cent of secondary schools offer a second foreign language. Of those that do, 60 per cent offer German; 25.7 per cent Spanish; 25.3 per cent French; 4 per cent Italian and 2.4 per cent Russian. Most introduce the second foreign language in Years 8 or 9 but only a small percentage of pupils take it up to GCSE.

Surprisingly, though 34.2 per cent of secondaries make two foreign languages compulsory at some stage, in only 6.4 per cent of those schools do more more than half the pupils go on to sit GCSEs in two languages. Nearly all of these are independent or grant-maintained secondary schools. Many maintained schools cite lack of curriculum time as the reason for dropping the second language at key stage 4.

Hampstead School, a 1,300-pupil comprehensive in north London, is a good example. It has a strong penchant for diversification and Year 7 pupils take a language awareness course - that explores the languages of foreign or ethnic pupils in the class and looks at the similarities as well as differences - alongside French. They then choose between German and Spanish as a second language and study it alongside French in their second and third year. But they can only do one language GCSE in curriculum time, though eight or so are doing French after school.

"The school has a core curriculum, which is balanced, and it's not really an option to do languages at the expense of, say, technology. It's a question of available curriculum time," says Richard Freeman, head of languages.

There is no doubt that diversification presents a timetabling problem, especially for schools with split provision of the first foreign language which want their pupils to study a second language as well. Split provision - where some pupils study one language and others another - in Year 7 inevitably means smaller groups for the second language which many schools find costly and impractical to sustain.

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