For the first time in seven years, modern languages teachers are beginning to talk to one another. A recent series of regional meetings in colleges has allowed them to re-forge links broken by incorporation (when colleges came out of local authority control), discuss issues and share best practice.
Cherry Sewell, language teaching adviser with the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (CILT), says: "Until 1993, languages sections in FE colleges spoke to each other quite a lot. Since incorporation, with colleges being set against each other, the opportunities for meeting other language teachers just weren't there anymore."
Now those networks are being rebuilt. In December, the association launched a national network for further education language teachers, launched in conjunction with the Association of Language Learning and the Languages National Training Organisation.
"It's really for support and exchanging good practice," says Ms Sewell. "There is a lot of good practice going on in individual colleges, but because we've been isolated from each other for the last seven years, we haven't really heard about it."
The new network arrives at the same time as a growing realisation that the sector must help to address the crisis in post-16 modern languages teaching.
Further education has huge potential for improving access to languages, according to a report published in May by the Nuffield Foundation. The foundation launched an inquiry, co-chaired by newsreader Trevor McDonald, to look at the needs of language teaching for the next 20 years. Its findings will not surprise those involved in languages education. It confirmed that critically few students on either academic or vocational courses are continuing to study languages. Only one 16-year-old in 10 carries on.
The inquiry team criticises the lack of a national strategic policy for languages, particularly in the post-16 sector, and says there is overwhelming evidence of inequality of opportunity for adults. There is also a wide gulf to be bridged between the language needs of businesses and the education sector meeting those needs.
Students at 16 face narrow horizons and limited choice. While moves to broaden the curriculum are welcomed, the report says more focused action is needed. Even where languages are offered, they are not sufficiently integrated into the curriculum. Funding for vocational courses and lack of collaboration between languages and vocational studies staff are seen as major contributors to this.
Next year has been declared European Year of Languages by the Council of Europe and the European Union. But as we approach 2001, there i considerable frustration among languages teachers in FE over an apparent lack of support for modern languages on the Government's part.
Some colleges now have a 16-19 curriculum with no European languages at all. Others have found that by showing a willingness to respond to demand, their languages departments thrive. Although their 16-19 provision may be suffering, some have shifted their attention to the languages needs of, say, local businesses.
Curriculum 2000 brings fresh hope for languages teaching in further education, with a broader choice and more modular approaches for students. CILT highlights the potential and increasing use of information and communcations technology in teaching languages in schools and colleges, especially its potential in forging links with schools abroad via video conferencing and e-mail.
But the crisis in modern languages is complex and underlined by fundamental difficulties. As the Nuffield inquiry points out, attitudes to languages must change.
The inquiry team found the attitude that everyone speaks English is endemic. This mono-lingualism leaves Britain lagging behind in the global marketplace and in mobility of employment.
Keith Marshall, at the University of Bangor, says employers hold languages low on their list of priorities of skills that employees should have. But he believes that such priorities will change. "In the next few years, it's not just going to be bilingualism that will be prized within institutions, it'll be multilingualism," he says.
* Exploit the potential to provide enhanced access for everyone over16 to languages
* Make languages a specified component of the 16-19 curriculum and a requirement in certain courses
* Develop the potential of language learning among adults
* Offer a wider range of languages, including Chinese, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese and Arabic alongside European languages.
* Explore ways of linking community languages with vocational courses
* Promote links between languages and employability through business-education partnerships
* Include languages in the strategic and development plans of national and regional organisations and local learning partnerships
* Collaborate to provide unified information and advice services on language learning opportunities.
* Enhance language learning using information and communications technology.
* Ensure access to adequate training for languages staff, with a specific focus on themethodology of language teaching.
The full report is available from The Nuffield Languages Inquiry, PO Box 2671,London ,W1A 3SH . Tel 020 7911 5054. Fax 020 7911 5167. e-mail Nuflang@compuserve.com. The inquiry's recommendations will be published on the website: www.nuffield.org