Life skills are not optional

27th June 2003 at 01:00
Learning foreign languages may be hard work, but they are necessary and worth the trouble, says Rachel Hawkes

Je ne comprends pas! On the one hand the Government plans to introduce foreign language teaching in primary schools at key stage 2 and launches the modern languages strand of the KS3 strategy with its "languages for all" motto.

On the other, the Government's recent White Paper facilitates the marginalising of foreign language teaching and learning at GCSE level by making it an "entitlement" subject.

Will most schools interpret the new, more flexible approach to the 14-16 curriculum as an opportunity to make the learning of a foreign language completely optional?

The reasons for this contradiction are clear. There is a huge national shortage of good secondary foreign language teachers. Many modern languages departments have struggled to close the achievement gap that exists between languages at GCSE grades A*-C and results for other subjects.

The status of such departments and the morale of their staff have been steadily eroded over the past 10 years, particularly as the pressure to produce ever-better GCSE results has increased.

There is a perception that huge numbers of pupils are disaffected with languages in KS4, due in part to the fact that it is more difficult to gain any given grade in French or German than in other subjects.

What simpler solution, therefore, than to make studying a foreign language optional at KS4? Who would oppose such an obvious way forward? Not headteachers, who will look forward to an overall rise in the school's nationally reported A*-C percentage. Not beleaguered heads of language departments, who will no longer need to justify their token improvements in results each year. Perhaps not even most modern language teachers who, after all, can anticipate the joy of teaching pupils who want to learn.

And why the lack of opposition? Think back to the Languages for All policy of a few years ago. This was driven by a belief that, to play a significant role in the global economy, young people in Britain would need a facility with languages similar to their European peers. It seems extraordinary that this is no longer seen as important.

The positive thrust of the White Paper is the potential flexibility now offered to schools to structure their own KS4 curricula. School management teams must carefully assess the future place of modern languages by first examining the provision in their own schools.

I am fortunate enough to work in a modern languages department which is on a huge upward curve. The proportion of Year 11 pupils gaining GCSE grades A*-C in either French or German has improved over the past four years by almost 30 percentage points - up from 40.1 to 68.4 per cent.

The department boasts a team of talented, committed teachers and its ability to recruit and retain its excellent staff is a measure of its recent success. Morale is high. Standards of teaching and learning continue to improve as all staff embrace new strategies and innovate on a daily basis, using information and communications technology, thinking skills, and other strategies to produce lessons, which engage pupils across both key stages.

Understandably, perhaps, the teachers in this department are not rushing to embrace the possibility of optional foreign language learning at KS4.

However positive a profile the subject may have, pupils who believe they can access a better grade with less work in another subject will doubtless be drawn away.

Languages are perceived as hard work. Learning skills which will help them to compete in an ever-expanding job market may not be a high priority for a lot of 14-year olds.

In many schools, the reclassification of languages as an "entitlement" subject may be seen as a godsend. But if languages are a life skill up to the age of 14 then they certainly remain so for the compulsory school years.

The mission statements for most schools include the pledge to provide a "broad and balanced curriculum". It is a mistake to think that schools can fulfil this pledge without including the learning of a foreign language up to the age of 16.

Rachel Hawkes is head of languages at Comberton Village College, an 11-16 comprehensive school in Cambridgeshire

Teacher, 6

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