The hard question of priorities

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
Brendan O'Malley finds out how schools cope with delivering a spread of languages. Three years ago French was the predominant language taught at Maidstone grammar, a 1,245-pupil selective school in Kent. Now all pupils study two languages as a joint first foreign language. In Year 7 five sets study French, three study German, three Spanish and one Latin.

Maidstone is a model of what can be achieved in terms of diversifying language teaching away from just French. It's record on the first language contrasts strongly with the findings of the survey of modern languages in secondary schools carried out by The TES and the Centre for Information on Language teaching and Research in the autumn and published last month. It found that 54.8 per cent of UK schools teach only French in the first year of secondary school.

Pupils at Maidstone study two languages up to Year 9, then they can choose to carry on with two up until GCSE - and 46 per cent of pupils do. Post-16 the school offers French, German and Spanish at A and AS- level and there's an option for non-language specialists to do an a language to AS- level or lower. A few are currently studying for Russian GCSE and in the past students have studied Italian, Polish and Africaans. The school is now seeking language college status.

"We started diversifying three years ago," explains headteacher Neil Turrell. "We think the ability to work or communicate internationally in diverse industries, cultures and regions is important."

The price of diversification at Maidstone is a compression of the time available for other subjects. At key stage 3 maths has been squeezed from five periods a week to four, and humanities from six periods to five. As a result all pupils are able to do three periods a week on each of their two languages.

However, Mr Turrell accepts that without selection diversification of languages might not be such a priority.

"We are squeezing the curriculum to provide the time, but because we are dealing with a selective school population, these students are able to make do.

"If the school had 40 to 50 per cent special needs pupils it would be out of the question to reduce the English language timetable commitment."

St Margaret's High in Airdre, by contrast, has achieved diversification despite drawing a large proportion of its pupils from an underprivileged background - 43 per cent of its children are eligible for clothing allowance.

Fifty per cent of its annual 260 to 300 intake at S1 take Spanish and the other 50 per cent study French as a first foreign language. In Year 9 they can choose to pursue a second foreign language as well, which may be Italian, French or Spanish.

But whereas Maidstone Grammar offers languages to high achievers, at St Margaret's there is a deliberate policy of encouraging mixed ability pupils to carry on languages in a more palatable form in S5 and S6 - the equivalent of sixth form south of the border.

The school provides modular language courses for 25 per cent of this age group as part of the School Group Award, in which pupils study a number of broadly vocational subjects such as business studies and economics. Sixth formers can also learn French, Spanish or Italian for leisure.

Frank Berry, headteacher at St Margaret's, explains that the school feels a duty to reinforce language teaching because the pupils going through school now are the first generation in Scotland in which everyone is studying a language. "A lot of their parents would not have had access to a modern foreign language, this makes it not as accessible as other subjects, it requires a lot of preparation and work at home."

The TESCILT survey showed that schools from all background have tried a wide variety of methods to diversify language teaching into lesser taught languages such as German, Spanish, Italian, Russian and Urdu. Some offer split provision in Year 7, with some pupils studying one language while others study another. Some offer dual provision in which pupils study two or more languages. Others offer "wave provision" with French in Year 7 studying one year and German the next, and others have a carousel system giving short taster courses of several languages after which pupils can choose one to concentrate on.

The difference between those school deciding to offer just French and those offering a choice of languages, seems to come down to how high a commitment there is in the school to languages compared to other subjects and whether there are extraneous limitations, such as problems finding qualified staff.

At St Margaret's High, Frank Berry is very clear why the school is pursuing a diversified languages policy and offering a second language, even to low ability pupils. "We are trying to increase the overall ability of the population to feel confident in languages. We are looking to Europe in the future and we want them to have a minimum confidence in making conversation with other people in the European Union," he says.

Survey results: Scotland takes the lead, and independent schools take the long view, page IV

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