Ron to the rescue - again

13th October 2006 at 01:00
Dearing called in - to scrutinise decline in pupils learning foreign tongues

Education's Mr Fix-it is to carry out an urgent review of modern language teaching to halt the sharp decline in the numbers of 14 to 16-year-olds studying them.

Lord Ron Dearing is due to publish initial findings in December and complete his report for the Government by February. The 76-year-old peer has been a troubleshooter for both Conservative and Labour governments. His reviews led to a rewrite of the national curriculum, following the Sats boycott and the introduction of university tuition fees.

Lord Dearing said it was apt that Alan Johnson, Education Secretary, had formally asked him to do the job in a letter as he had previously been chairman of the Post Office while Mr Johnson had been a postman.

The tight timescale means he plans to start meeting schools and universities from today and will begin holding regional meetings with heads and language teachers within a month.

"When I heard how much time I had I thought, 'bloody hell'," Lord Dearing told The TES. "But I did the national curriculum in three months. I'm also a believer in the Macbeth line, 'If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly'".

The number of teenagers taking modern language lessons has fallen sharply since 2004 when the Government stopped them being compulsory in key stage 4 (14 to 16) and instead said they should be an "entitlement".

The proportion studying modern languages in that age group dropped last year from 68 to 58 per cent. Lord Dearing said he feared take-up might fall to less than half next year, despite a broad government benchmark that 50 to 90 per cent of pupils in each school should study them.

His worries are shared by education ministers. Mr Johnson said: "It is essential in the modern global economy for our young people to be equipped with the skills they need and I want to stem this decline now."

Lord Dearing said it was not in his remit to recommend that languages should become compulsory again, nor did he think it a valid solution.

Instead he wants to find ways to encourage pupils to choose languages of their own accord, particularly disaffected students from non-privileged backgrounds.

Lord Dearing said the answers were likely to lie in work which successful schools and education companies were doing already. He has identified several schools he wants to contact, including Tile Hill Wood in Coventry, which has been teaching geography in French for four years and last year introduced bilingual classes for RE, science and PSHE. He said he would demand extra resources from the Government and changes to inspections if he thought they were needed.

Ideas he is toying with include giving greater emphasis in secondary schools on the "ladder" system for accrediting pupils' achievements in languages and placing new duties on school improvement partners, who have been assigned to work with every headteacher. He is also keen to explore opportunities for pupils to learn Spanish and Mandarin, which are growing in popularity.

Lord Dearing, who speaks moderately fluent French and some German, stressed he had no preconceptions. "I am starting from scratch," he said. "It has been a great advantage when I listened to teachers. Before that I knew nothing about the subject."

Asked if he was ever going to retire, the crossbench peer said: "I find it more fun and useful doing something like this than making speeches in the House of Lords."

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