Initial training is the key to languages;Platform;Opinion

12th February 1999 at 00:00
Primary teachers will only be confident linguists if they start to learn before they begin their career, says John Muir

WHEN I took part in the Scottish pilot project to introduce French to primary pupils in 1990, I had a sense of deja vu. As a raw recruit to the primary classroom in the mid-sixties, I participated in the Modern Languages in the Primary School (MLPS) experiment of that era. Then I saw it abandoned, following publication in 1969 of a damning report from the Scottish Education Department.

In the light of the Standards and Quality report on modern languages published at the end of last year should I now sigh, "plus ca change", particularly in response to sensational headlines in the press such as:

"Primary language programme fails again"?

There have been many changes to the delivery of modern languages since the late sixties, not least being enjoyment through activity-based learning. But enjoyment, while it may be conducive to success, is not the be all and end all of education. A key question for the recently appointed action group must be how to ensure quality in today's programme, particularly when non-linguists are involved in the delivery.

The group must first clarify the status of modern languages within the 5-14 guidelines. Schools are encouraged, not compelled, to take part. Even where staff are positive about the programme, there is concern that they will be asked to grade pupils, without guidance.

Worse still, those working hard to deliver modern languages in an already crowded curriculum fear that their competence will be unfairly assessed following a 27-day programme which was not designed to transform primary teachers into modern linguists.

If we evaluate the achievement of teachers or pupils without due regard to such concerns, modern languages may be viewed as the straw that will break their backs. Matters of quality must be addressed in a user-friendly way. Remembering the aphorism that weighing doesn't fatten the pig; any system of assessment should not be so time-consuming that it impinges on teaching; and records kept must have a clear purpose and an identified audience.

The challenge is to sustain support for trained staff in the years ahead, not only giving additional guidance, but funding refresher courses at home and abroad. Recommendations on changes to the existing programme may be useful to existing staff, but most modern languages co-ordinators believe current in-service training is only a medium-term measure.

The teaching of modern languages must surely become an integral part of initial training. Only then can we hope to meet demands to extend effective delivery beyond 2000. In a recent survey of training centres I was able to ascertain that an increasing number of primary undergraduates are electing to study modern languages, even if only to add a qualification which may be attractive to potential employers in a competitive market. We must recognise this potential.

If the action group comes up with a list of expectations for local authorities and schools but fails to deliver on initial training, it will have missed a golden opportunity to tackle the problem at its heart.

Until we reach the position where most primary teachers are able to deliver modern languages, the greatest challenge will be maintaining language provision while coping with staff moves and changes that result in gaps which may not be easy to fill by in-service training alone. The reality, given the range of training and diversity of delivery across the country, is that it may not be possible for some teachers to go beyond a basic exposure of pupils to the foreign language, which will need to be developed and progressed in different ways in secondary schools.

As the report highlights, there is a need for liaison with the secondary sector, a factor which until recently languages departments have not had to consider. But this should extend beyond mere encouragement to do so, one of the failings of 5-14 in S1 and S2 to date. Funding must be targeted to allow secondary linguists to work regularly with primary colleagues to support programmes and share resources, particularly with those who, to put it kindly, are "linguistically challenged".

The key role which foreign language assistants might play in primary schools should not be underestimated. Unfortunately, cash-strapped authorities have cut back on this area of spending. We need to reverse this decline.

Phase six of the modern languages initiative is now under way. Training co-ordinators have planned each year from phase one not knowing until well into successive financial years to what extent future places would be funded. We need long-term financial commitment, similar to that in nursery places and early intervention, for example, if we are to effectively plan for a programme which will take us into the new millennium.

Despite concerns expressed in the media and criticism by some secondary linguists, the majority of participants have hailed the modern languages programme as one of the most interesting and enjoyable they have undertaken. Of course, many are concerned about how best to meet the needs of their pupils and some, questioning their own competence, cry out for more training. Unfortunately, the adverse and largely erroneous press response to the Standards and Quality report did nothing to boost their confidence.

The action group has the difficult task of identifying ways to support them while addressing legitimate national concerns about teacher competence and pupil achievement. If it succeeds, primary teachers will rise to the challenge - as they always do - even when they know that they may have to take the flak at some time in the future for programmes more often than not designed by others far from the realities of the chalkface.

John Muir is MLPS co-ordinator for Highland Council.

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