Something lost in translation

26th August 2005 at 01:00
For all the Government's fine words about languages, its policies are strangling the subject in state schools, writes Geoff Lucas

The gap between policy rhetoric and reality on the ground has always fascinated me. Each year produces a new crop to marvel at. The prize for the year 20042005, however, must surely go to the Teacher Training Agency for its press release of June 21 on modern languages.

Under the headline "Diverse range of languages on offer for country's pupils", we were invited to celebrate the shedding of this country's image as linguaphobes as today's children study a greater variety of languages than any previous generation.

Moreover, we are confidently told, the number of entries for language GCSEs has gone up 8 percent in the past 10 years. French and German are still the most popular languages with 320,000 students sitting French and 122,000 sitting German GCSEs exams in 2004. Other European languages have also increased in popularity (Portuguese up by 139 per cent, Turkish by 129 per cent and Spanish by 80 percent).

I am not deriding any of this and, of course, the TTA has a difficult and important job to do in trying to attract future language teachers. But it knows, as does any objective observer of developments over the last few years, that modern language teachers are destined to become an endangered species if current government policy on languages continues.

Tucked away in the TTA press release is the telling statement from Isabella Moore, Director of the National Centre for Languages, that: "These figures (quoted above) show the success of the 'languages for all' policy during the period of the national curriculum".

A decade of blood, sweat and tears by language teachers was just beginning to turn the rhetoric of "language for all" into reality when the Government gave up on languages by making them optional from the age of 14.

A refreshingly honest report from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, as part of the ironically-named "QCA Futures" programme, warned that French and German lessons were in "chronic decline". The same term is used to describe the number of entries for A-level and "it is feared that post-16 MFL has reverted to being a subject for high-ability students from middle-class backgrounds, mainly in independent schools".

This year's marked decline in GCSE entries in all modern languages and the drop in French and German entries at A level (with numbers in French now almost half what they were in 1994) provides further stark evidence of a growing crisis.

Data from the Independent Schools Council (ISC) also bear this out. From 1999 to 2004, overall GCSE entries in MFL fell by 3.6%; at independent schools they rose by 4.4%. At A level, MFL entries nationally fell by 12.1%; in the independent sector they increased by 6.4%. Both these trends are impacting on higher education and the 2005 examinations data will further expose these disparities. Thirty per cent of all new young MFL undergraduates now come from the independent sector.

In fairness to the Government, the beginning of the decline in take-up of languages nationally pre-dates the change in the status of the subject from compulsory to optional at Key Stage 4 .

Yet this change can only make things worse and accentuate the gap between state and independent sectors. While study of a language from 14-16 is compulsory in almost 100 per cent of independent schools, astonishingly it is now compulsory in only 30 per cent of state schools.

Yet an Ofsted report on implementing modern languages at key stage 4 (published earlier this year) reveals how secondary schools serving disadvantaged areas can successfully teach languages. One of its key findings is that success depends on a commitment to preventing languages from becoming an elitist subject and to making it a successful experience for pupils of all abilities and backgrounds.

While the Government is unlikely to reverse its policy at key stage 4, there are things that could be done to encourage greater take-up of the subject in all schools, not just specialist language colleges and independent schools.

The 14-19 white paper proposal to report the proportion of pupils getting five Cs or better at GCSE, including English and maths, could be extended to incorporate a language and a science.

Reaching such a benchmark at GCSE could be called a "general diploma" - but that is of secondary importance. A simple measure of this sort would be a first step in trying to turn the policy rhetoric about modern foreign languages into reality.

Geoff Lucas is general secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses'

Conference (HMC)

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