Languages must not be left behind

29th August 2008 at 01:00
Every seven-year-old in England will have to study a modern foreign language in the new decade. In Wales, the decision will be left to schools.

Every seven-year-old in England will have to study a modern foreign language in the new decade. In Wales, the decision will be left to schools.

Education minister Jane Hutt says not making modern foreign languages compulsory at key stage 2 will allow local authorities and schools greater freedom to introduce languages as they see fit. But is her decision more to do with Wales not having the infrastructure and resources to do otherwise? Carolyn Goodwin from Cilt Cymru, Wales's national centre for languages, certainly thinks so. If this is the case, it is a sorry state to be in.

Although the popularity and success of key stage 2 pilots in teaching foreign languages in Wales cannot be doubted, assessors also acknowledge that compulsion could be unpopular. Does that indicate a lack of enthusiasm for the idea? No. The main concerns are a lack of specialist teachers, funding and teacher time.

Lord Dearing advocated statutory national introduction of languages at KS2 in England in order to combat a sharp decline in the number of GCSE entries.

If desperate measures are being taken in England, they are also needed in Wales. New statistics published this week also show take-up of modern foreign languages in Wales at KS4 has fallen to an all-time low of 28 per cent.

The Confederation of British Industry has criticised the lack of languages skills, particularly from Wales, making the issue a cause celebre.

So, what hope for the future? It appears that non-compulsion can only lead to one thing: disadvantage. The appetite for the teaching of modern foreign languages at an earlier age is huge among parents and those in the business world.

But what is a supportive parent likely to do if their seven-year-old son or daughter is not given a chance to study a foreign language? The answer will probably be to find a school that does. And what about the child who does not have supportive and knowledgeable parents?

It is to be hoped that all primaries will eventually offer a modern foreign language. But if they don't - whether because of a lack of cash or a shortage of specialist teachers - non-compulsion will just lead to inequality of opportunity. It will also give pupils in England a huge head start.

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