Brendan O'Malley reports on a TESCentre for Information on Language Teaching and Research survey which shows there are formidable obstacles hindering the spread of languages other than French in schools.
James Burch travelled 1,080 miles last week to visit his student teachers on placement. The head of modern languages at the University College of St Martin, Lancaster, set out on Monday to travel 300 miles south-east to Woodbridge in East Anglia. He then drove back to Lancaster before heading north across the Lake District to Whitehaven, and finally on to Silloth, on the banks of the Solway Firth, overlooking the Scottish coast.
This week one of his languages colleagues had to visit Peterbor++ough and Woodbridge, while another did the round-country trip down to Milton Keynes, up to Newcastle and then back across the Pennines to Lancaster.
The college's 66 Spanish and Italian students who, in the first term, were distributed among 10 partnership schools locally, are this term spread the length and breadth of the country during their block practice. Their tutors ring them every week and visit twice during the term, or four times if they are paired with another student.
These are the extreme lengths to which St Martin's has to go to beat the limitations placed on languages placements by the new school-based training arrangements. But they are not alone. Many training institutions are finding it increasingly difficult to place students of languages other than French. "We are the only institution able to place all of our Italian students," boasts Mr Burch.
Other colleges are having to send student teachers of languages such as Spanish, Italian and Russian into schools two at a time to team-teach because there aren't enough suitable placements. Some have to make do with teaching ab initio courses to local sixth-formers. In at least one training department Italian students are having to practise by teaching GCSE to other student teachers.
The problem stems from the arrangements that came into play in September 1994, under which colleges draw up training contracts with schools to cover all national curriculum subjects and the opportunities for language placements are dictated by what languages those schools happen to offer.
The results of The TESCILT modern languages survey of secondary schools or equivalent and a separate survey of training institutions by CILT demonstrate that the restrictions are creating a Catch-22 situation which could prove a serious problem for languages other than French in the long term.
The secondary survey shows that the biggest deciding factor in whether a school has diversified into languages such as German, Spanish, Italian and Russian has been the difficulty in finding staff qualified to teach more than one language. Yet the training survey, which was sent to 72 training institutions, shows that most training colleges are having problems trying to secure suitable placements for student teachers of languages other than French - and the situation is getting worse.
"The survey shows there is increasing concern among trainers, especially in London," says Pat McLagan of CILT. "Most say it is very difficult. There's a feeling that it is wrong that languages other than French are not a factor in the selection of schools for partnership; some are saying there are no opportunities for Russian in their area at all. Trainers are saying there's also a scarcity of trained mentors in languages other than French."
The training survey indicates that the quality of language teaching practice experienced by students remains comparable in French and German but is getting progressively poorer for Spanish, Italian and particularly Russian, as training colleges are forced to accept placements in schools that do not match their ideal.
Even German is facing problems. John Hurman, of Birmingham University, who conducted a smaller survey last autumn, found that a key problem was finding enough schools able to offer placements where both French and German can be taught within the same student's timetable.
The irony here is that schools are crying out for qualified teachers with this combination of languages. The TESCILT secondary survey showed that nearly half the schools seeking staff in the past five years have had difficulty recruiting those qualified in two or more languages and of those, 70 per cent were looking for teachers with French and German.
The training institutions are agreed that the priority is for recruiting students with two or more languages but they have had difficulty finding appropriate placements to accommodate these. The less taught the language the harder it is to find placements.
One college had to contact more than 250 schools to secure 24 places. Another has been forced to cut the intake of Russian trainees from four to one because of problems finding placements. Yet another, Newcastle University, has been forced to restrict course places in Spanish, the third most taught language. "When that happens it could spell the beginning of the end for diversification," says Pat McLagan.
David Westgate, senior lecturer at Newcastle, says he can only see the national picture improving if there are more schools diversifying and offering less-taught languages. But at present it looks as though there are going to be fewer teachers to enable them to do this.