Primary languages lost in translation

7th October 2011 at 01:00
Mr Gove champions lessons from KS1 a year after shelving them

Primary heads woke on Saturday morning to something of a surprise. Having spent the last 12 months rowing back from long-term plans for compulsory foreign language teaching in their schools from 2011, they were faced with the education secretary - the very man who had shelved the idea - claiming there was a "slam-dunk case" for such lessons from key stage 1. This, they have since warned, has left them confused and uncertain of where to invest their shrinking budgets.

The Labour government invested time and money in long-term preparations for the implementation of the proposals - first announced in 2002 - which was to be rolled out alongside the Rose review of the primary curriculum in 2011.

But one of the Coalition's first acts upon assuming power in spring last year was to shelve both Rose and the new languages rules. This triggered an unravelling of much preparation for their introduction - a TES survey in December found that of 41 primary language advisers polled in 45 local authorities, 11 had lost their jobs and 22 were "under review". Indeed, heads have warned that in these straitened times, investment in language learning is on the wane.

But now the Government is apparently keen on languages again. Schools minister Nick Gibb told TES this week that, while schools would have to wait for the Government-commissioned curriculum review to report next year, there is an obvious direction of travel. "There is a great deal of evidence that shows early learning of modern languages increases the capacity of a child's intellect," he said. "That is what we are most excited about."

While this is a popular message on a philosophical level, many at the chalkface feel like they are dealing with a sudden and unhelpful about- turn. Indeed, one language consultant, John Connor, this week sent an open letter to education secretary Michael Gove.

"While I applaud your statement on teaching languages to children from the age of five, nonetheless I have some concerns," he wrote. "I believe that you fail to understand the level of damage you caused to the primary languages initiative when you summarily abandoned the Rose review of the primary curriculum.

"We made significant progress between 2002 (when compulsory languages in primaries was first mooted) and 2010, which hit the buffers when you dropped the Rose review. I don't think you understand how much more difficult it will be to regain the momentum that has been lost."

This was echoed by Linda Parker, director of the Association for Language Learning. "The longer we are in this no-man's land between what we expected, which was that it would become statutory in 2011, and this place where we don't really know what is happening, the more we risk losing a great deal," she warned.

Heads have also waded in. Mike Kent, head of Comber Grove primary in Camberwell, south London, said his school had introduced Spanish classes for his pupils, but the whole policy was now muddied.

"There was a huge push on primary languages several years ago and I think it was a great idea. I think it was crazy it was dropped," he said. "I know a lot of schools which had said they couldn't afford to do it or their staff were not able or willing to do it."

Others are also concerned that there will be a pause between the Government's suggestion this week that it wants more primary language learning and the implementation of the curriculum review's recommendations.

Baroness Jean Coussins, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on modern languages, is among the most vocal on the subject. "There is a problem with saying that everything has to wait until the end of the national curriculum review, because for some subjects that means waiting until 2014," she said.

"There are lots of things in languages which could and should be done sooner rather than later - reinstating the plan to make languages compulsory at key stage 2 is definitely one of those things."

For ministers, of course, things are apparently far simpler. "As we said back when coming to power, if you had made those preparations don't undo them," Mr Gibb said this week. "We said we wanted to give the issue further thought and that is what we have been doing."

But expecting increasingly cash-strapped schools to simply continue as they were, while waiting for ministers to have a bit of a think, was probably political wishful thinking.

A 2008 survey found that up to 18% of all schools said they might not be able to offer language lessons to all junior pupils by 2010. And up to a quarter said they might not be ready for the statutory requirement in 2011

The most common way to teach languages in primary schools is with one 40- minute lesson a week

Schools with higher numbers of pupils on free school meals are less likely to offer languages.

Photo credit: Jim Wileman

Original headline: About-turn leaves primary languages lost in translation

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