Make your mind up says primary language lobby

17th December 2010 at 00:00
MFL used to be a rarity outside secondaries; not any more. But is Labour's pound;200m initiative about to fall victim to a dearth of both funding and political will?

When you are learning a new skill, whether riding a bike or how to teach languages, timing is everything. However confident you seem, pull away the support too early and you risk falling flat.

There are just a handful of people in England - perhaps 100 - whose role is to be the stabilisers for primary teachers learning to teach languages.

These people were hired by local authorities, using central government funding to make primary languages happen, but almost all are now facing redundancy.

A TES survey of primary modern foreign language consultants in 45 authorities found that found that the equivalent of 41 full-time posts are currently funded. The future of 22 posts is uncertain, 11 will definitely go and just 8 are sure to remain after 31 March 2011.

The consultants spent years helping schools to get ready for compulsory foreign language teaching, only for the commitment to be dropped in the run-up to the general election.

A national curriculum review encompassing language learning is due to take place next year. But with the vital support of consultants being scrapped and ministers as yet undecided on their fate, what is the future of foreign languages in primaries?

Therese Comfort, head of primary education at Cilt, the national training centre for languages, says the consultants have already achieved a "tremendous amount" in helping schools develop their language teaching.

"But a lot of teachers and schools are still dependent on their help and their advice," she warns. "We've made a huge step forward, but we have to be honest: a lot of it is very fragile. In a lot of schools it all rests in the lap of one teacher. If that teacher moves on, what happens?

"We need a commitment that languages are going to be part of the primary curriculum, and I really feel we need about three more years of funding."

The introduction of compulsory foreign languages in primaries has been on the cards since an election pledge from Labour in 1996. Since 2007, when it was decided to make it compulsory, almost pound;200 million has been spent on getting language teaching embedded in primaries.

The money paid for training, resources and networks, without which the subject could not be introduced. But money alone does not seem to be the answer.

Some secondary schools have started to raise the alarm about the project's effectiveness. Their view is vital as a lack of effective transition to secondary was one of the reasons for the failure of an extensive primary French project in the 1970s.

There are accusations on both sides, with suspicions that some secondaries simply ignore prior learning and start pupils from scratch.

Research from Cambridge University, based on surveys in 2006 and 2007, found that most secondary heads and teachers supported primary languages but could see little impact on pupils.

One head of foreign languages in a Midlands secondary rewrote the Year 7 scheme of work in 2009 to match the language scheme that primaries were using. But when the pupils arrived, the teachers soon had to retreat to their previous lessons, designed for complete beginners.

Intrigued, he surveyed the Year 7 pupils and found that most primaries had begun teaching languages from Year 4. But for 40 per cent of pupils, teaching had been sporadic, rather than a regular weekly lesson, and 15 per cent said French was dropped in Year 6 when Sats loomed. Pupils had found the experience disjointed and confusing, although most were still positive.

"It is of concern that so many schools have seen MFL (modern foreign languages) as expendable in the face of staff shortages or Sats," he says. "I don't get the impression that the students are any better at French than they were before local schools started doing the subject. They seem to know some more vocabulary but structurally it is as if they have done nothing at all."

Now it seems that both the money and the commitment are on hold. In August, the Government said that "given its importance, primary schools that are teaching languages should continue to do so", but gave no more indication on its future place in the curriculum or on funding.

So when the Association for Language Learning surveyed its members this term on the current state of language learning, the uncertainty about primary languages was the single biggest topic, provoking concern and anger.

One teacher in Bedfordshire says: "Primary languages are on the cusp of succeeding, but are now in a perilous situation if the Government doesn't make them statutory . It would be a national disgrace if primary languages were to become the preserve of the leafy suburbs and independent schools."

Another member responsible for primary languages in a southern authority says: "The failure to get the KS2 language agenda through as statutory meant a `oh well' attitude from some heads . There are many who are supportive and keen, some who are but feel too squeezed by other priorities to make it high profile and others who are just not interested."

The despair over the future is sharpened by the fact that for many primaries, the languages initiative has progressed a long way.

From one in five primaries offering something - possibly an after-school club - in 2000, by 2008, 92 per cent offered languages in class time to some year groups and 69 per cent had four full years of language teaching.

Clare Seccombe fulfils the role of primary languages consultant in Sunderland. She is seconded from St Paul's CofE Primary School for two- and-a-half days a week, until the end of August. By 2009, 76 of the authority's 85 primaries were teaching languages, although not necessarily across key stage 2, and more have joined this year.

She says: "My experience is that primary schools are continuing to take up primary languages and not the reverse, despite the few loopholes that have been offered to them recently.

"Primary languages is going well in Sunderland, but it could be better. One of the big things is progression, particularly with non-specialist teachers, who next year or the year after will be getting Year 5 pupils in their third year of French.

"The authority provides schemes of work and training; we train teams of staff and upskill them to help people to become more confident. We provide a lot of support.

"So many schools are now very keen on language teaching and yet the people who can move it further are being got rid of."

But there are alternatives. Not every area has consultants and some local authorities are hoping that schools have enough trained staff to sustain the work themselves after March 2011, although schools may have to fork out for any extras.

Manchester, for example, has not had a primary languages consultant for three years. Instead it used its Government funding to set up leading teachers and schools of excellence. These hub schools commission additional support where needed.

In Halton, its primary languages money paid for specialist staff at the local languages college to manage and deliver primary languages. With funding being withdrawn, primary schools will now have to bear the costs themselves, the council has said.

But whatever alternatives are tried in the name of austerity, there is no alternative to statutory status say campaigners.

"It is very important to reinstate plans to make it part of the statutory curriculum in primary schools," says Baroness Coussins, chair of the all- party parliamentary group on languages. "The Government has to act very quickly and not wait until the end of the consultation period on a curriculum review.

"It has not even stated yet that it expects languages to become statutory. Without that impetus there is a serious risk that language teaching will fall off."

LINGO BINGO: Hope fades

1996: Labour pledges to introduce languages to primary schools if it wins the election the following year.

2002: The national languages strategy pledges that languages will become an entitlement for all junior children in 2010.

2004: Languages are made optional at key stage 4 and GCSE entries decline sharply. This leads to a review of language teaching led by Lord Dearing and Lid King.

2007: The Dearing review is published. Among its recommendations are for primary languages to become compulsory following a curriculum review. The Government signs up to a target date of 2011.

2009: Sir Jim Rose includes compulsory languages in his curriculum review. The Government agrees to enact legislation.

2010: Just before the general election, the new primary curriculum is shelved.


Janet Morton, of Neroche Primary, Ilminster, Somerset, teaches French because "it's practical, it's fun and it's really important".

Named primary language teacher of the year, Ms Morton has A-level French and ran languages clubs when she first started teaching.

But it was when she moved to Somerset and became involved in the primary languages work being done by consultant Lesley Hooper that her interest really took off. She became a leading teacher, helping to train others and create resources. Mrs Hooper's post has since been made redundant.

Mrs Morton said: "Languages are really important. England can be quite insular. We are part of Europe and part of language learning is not just the language, but is about growing up to be a decent human being and have an understanding of how the world works and how we all have to work in it together."

  • Original headline: It's make your mind up time says primary language lobby

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