Languages seen as key to Europe's door

12th May 1995 at 01:00
Frances Rafferty on a heads' leader's plan to groom future European citizens. George Varnava, incoming president of the National Association of Headteachers, is a man with a mission. Later this month he will travel to Helsinki to promote his heartfelt plea for primary schools to embrace the European dimension.

It will be a whirlwind trip, for the European Secondary Heads Association has decided to hold its meeting just days before Mr Varnava will be presiding over his own union's annual conference in Harrogate, Yorkshire.

And he does not hold out much hope that ESHA will bow to his request to open membership to primary heads throughout the continent. He said: "It is too late to leave it to secondary age to teach young people to be Europeans.

"I think it is essential that primary schools teach their pupils another language.

"I'm not expecting great proficiency, but I would hope that it would give children of that age the notion that they can communicate even if it is just having the confidence to order the frites when they are on holiday."

Mr Varnava is concerned that England and Wales are on their own within the European Union for not introducing languages by the age of nine. This has placed children at "the unique disadvantage of being taught within a monocultural education system", he said, adding that pilot schemes in Scotland have shown encouraging results.

Professor Richard Johnstone, co-director of the Independent Evaluation of the National Pilot Project on Modern Languages in Scottish Primary Schools said his preliminary report showed that children who were introduced to another language at primary school are more confident in speaking a language, their pronunciation is better and they have a better vocabulary than counterparts at secondary school who have not had the same advantage.

The ink is now drying on the final report and while Professor Johnstone will only admit that the pilots have not been a "bad thing" it is expected that he will advise the Scottish Office that introducing a language at primary level is a definite bonus.

The Scottish guidelines advise introducing a second language at the ages of 10 and 11, but some schools have started at eight. And the aim has been not to put all the eggs in the French language basket, with some schools teaching German, Spanish or Italian (if local secondary schools offer a continuation).

Mr Varnava said: "ESHA must face up to the fact that the whole of the education service must be brought into play to promote a European vision. It is not just about vocational and academic education it is about educating the whole person to become a European citizen."

The main argument that ESHA has against expansion, he says, is that as the organisation runs on a shoestring it is unable to fund such an expansion. But Mr Varnava believes this underestimates the enthusiasm among the primary sector. He said: "I will be banging on the same drum at Helsinki. We are all managers of the education service and we should be taking a full part in the debate on Europe that is taking place throughout the European world."

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