Pupils put off languages by false gods of celeb culture, says schools leader

28th January 2011 at 00:00
But GSA president says compulsory study would run risk of shoehorning people 'into moulds'

Compulsory exams and the "false gods" of "quick-fix celebrity culture" are putting children off learning foreign languages, according to the new president of the Girls' Schools Association.

Helen Wright, head of St Mary's School in Calne, Wiltshire, said society's obsession with "15 minutes of fame" had made language learning appear to be a difficult path for young people to follow.

But Dr Wright, an Oxford languages graduate, is strongly opposed to foreign languages being made compulsory at GCSE and has instead called for less formal opportunities to learn.

Her comments follow education secretary Michael Gove's suggestion that a review of the national curriculum, launched last week, could "leave the door open" to pupils being compelled to study languages until the age of 16. A modern or classical language is also now part of the new English Baccalaureate.

Dr Wright said: "I believe everyone should learn a language before the age of 18. The question is when, how, to what end? I'm not convinced there needs to be a GCSE.

"Teaching a language from a very early age is fantastic, or you could run optional courses in the sixth-form. I'm not sure the aim for everybody needs to be to pass a GCSE, otherwise we are shoehorning individuals into moulds."

Dr Wright, whose own pupils learn Mandarin in Years 7 and 8 and can study three languages by Year 9, welcomed the Government's decision to include them in the EBac, but added: "I understand the principle of the English Bac, but not everyone is going to thrive on these subjects.

"Everybody should have a modern language but it's not necessary to have a GCSE. The focus on assessment squeezes people into a certain way of being."

Equally, she said it would be wrong to compel primaries to offer languages. "It would be amazing if every primary school child could have the experience ... But making things compulsory makes things dull and hard. We need entitlements and opportunities.

"I would like to think that primary heads could make this happen and would be queuing up to do it, but the Government needs to focus on getting people in there."

The Labour government lifted the requirement for all pupils to study a language at GCSE in 2004, leading to a slump in take-up.

But Dr Wright blamed the influence of wider society and an obsession with celebrities for contributing to the decline in language learning.

"Languages are perceived as hard and they are indeed rigorous," she said. "Maybe too much of society is about quick-fix celebrity culture, lottery winners, 15 minutes of fame.

"When you are sitting in a classroom working through something rigorously, it seems harder. We need to encourage, motivate and inspire. We need to combat the false gods of celebrity culture.

"It's not the sheer amount with languages, as science is endless, too -it's about the 'why'. People say, 'What's the sense of all this?' For people who haven't gone outside their own town, why would they be motivated?"

Bernadette Holmes, president elect of the Association for Language Learning, said she would welcome languages becoming statutory in schools and agreed that assessment should be flexible and diverse.

She said: "We are very keen to support coherent pathways through primary, secondary and on to university. We are keen for the curriculum review to explore a range of accreditations to suit learners' interests, to explore appropriate learning options."

- The GSA's guide to bringing up girls, Your Daughter, will be published next month



James Gillespie's High School, Edinburgh.

Graduated from Oxford University in modern and medieval languages.

MA in applied linguistics, Leicester University.

EdD (Understanding Moral Leadership in Schools), Exeter University.


1993: French and German teacher, Reed's School, Surrey.

1995: Head of German, Bishop's Stortford College, Hertfordshire.

1997: Head of German, St Edward's School, Oxford.


2000: Deputy head, then head, Heathfield School, Ascot.

2003: Head of St Mary's School, Calne, Wiltshire.

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