Second languages need to come first

7th April 1995 at 01:00
It may seem strange for a local education authority bureaucrat to be urging the Department for Education to take more power to itself, but there is one issue on which I would be happy to see it showing more muscle. That is the teaching of English to children for whom it is not the first language.

This is an area of work on which probably well over Pounds 250million a year is spent in the country's schools and colleges, in which thousands of teachers are engaged, and around which a considerable international research literature is developing.

Almost certainly the pedagogy of teaching a second language, particularly English, will continue to grow in importance worldwide.

Yet for some reason the DFE is either diffident or uninterested or both. Resources for teaching English as a second language come at present from almost anywhere other than the DFE.

Some projects are funded by the Home Office, under Section 11; some now by the Department for the Environment under the banner of Single Regeneration Budget or City Challenge; some even from the Department of Employment by way of special training schemes.

Those of us who receive this funding have to account for it to civil servants, more used to monitoring housing needs or job creation or infrastructure development. It is almost as if the activity itself is not regarded as an educational one at all - more a matter of "addressing disadvantage".

The activities of the new DFE- appointed national bodies tend to confirm this impression of disengagement. The national curriculum has almost nothing to say on the subject. The Office for Standards in Education does not include the inspection of English as a second language teaching in its framework.

It is too early to expect a position from the Teacher Training Agency; but it will have to act quickly if it is to retrieve the situation and avert the risk of atrophy. For there is now a serious risk that skills and expertise in this area will be lost. Both initial and in-service training for ESL specialists are drying up; qualified teachers are moving into other jobs; many are going abroad where - ironically - they are finding their skills more marketable.

The message given by the huge cuts in Section 11 funding inflicted in 1994, combined with continuing uncertainty and an apparent lack of any serious interest at a national level, is that English language teaching is of only marginal importance and not the area of work a career teacher will choose.

It was not always so. Even as recently as 1992, the new Section 11 programmes started, in many local education authorities, on a surge of enthusiastic commitment and won high-quality recruits. Some of this spirit might just be rescued if the Secretary of State were to take a strong and well-publicised line in reclaiming the territory for education.

First, she should insist that responsibility for monitoring and evaluating all English as a second language work should rest with the DFE and OFSTED.

Second, that the central funds should be transferred from all the other departments and managed by the DFE as a single specifically targeted fund.Third, that it should be allocated to local education authorities, GM schools and colleges, not on the basis of competitive bids, but on the basis of proven need, and for as long as the need was proven.

Fourth, that the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority should develop both policy and advice in this area of work (It could, for instance, publish definitions of fluency levels which tie the assessment of language learning into the national curriculum).

Fifth, that OFSTED should require registered inspectors to include appropriate experts on their teams and to inspect the ESL work in schools with a substantial proportion of second language speakers. Sixth, that the Teacher Training Agency should give urgent consideration to the establishment of adequate initial and in-service courses so that all teachers working in the field could have access to accredited training.

These six measures would cost almost nothing in addition to existing spending. If, once she had looked at the topic, the Secretary of State were by a happy chance to realise what a promising area for future development this is, then there are a lot more exciting initiatives waiting to be undertaken - a boost to the development of interactive IT in this area for instance, or a serious and properly financed pilot scheme in bilingual education.

Even that might not cost too much, because these are just the sort of areas where the European Union might wish to get involved. Will it happen? Probably not. Yet the problem is not just that this is an important opportunity missed, a niche, to use the market jargon, that ought to be ours.There is also a gathering crisis around communities in some inner-city areas, with youngsters leaving school with insufficient English to compete in the challenging new job market; or worse still, emerging "semi-lingual" with an inadequate grasp either of their own language or of English.

In the past, immigrant communities had two, three, or more generations to climb up the job ladder.The new phenomenon is that the intermediate rungs - the skilled manual jobs, the industries with internal promotion opportunities for bright but unqualified youngsters, public-sector middle management layers - have gone or are going.

It will need early, systematic and thorough intervention to achieve a level playing field in the new and challenging job market. And the cost if we don't achieve it will be far greater than anything we are even thinking of spending now.

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