Training changes hit other tongues

24th March 1995 at 00:00
John Trafford says the spread of languages other than French is under threat from the strain put on schools by PGCE partnerships. Russian has been a distinctive feature of our PGCE course in Sheffield for many years. It has survived and flourished in a small number of loyal schools, not all in the immediate area, which have been ever willing to host students on their school experience.

The students offering Russian have, through their own linguistic and cultural experience, often enhanced the quality of learning for the other linguists on the course, and recruitment has remained strong.

Once qualified our Russian teachers have also proved an attractive prospect for employers because of their versatility, because they offer the possibility of introducing some Russian into the school, on however modest a scale, and they all have a good standard of French andor German. Local schools, aware of the potential to be tapped, constantly request taster days for their pupils.

But all this could be under threat from the new teacher training arrangements which are posing question marks over the future of teaching across the range of "minority" or "less frequently taught" languages.

The new system of partnerships between schools and university departments of education to provide the secondary PGCE are now in place and have to meet the new requirements for student teachers to spend two-thirds of a 36-week PGCE course in schools and for resources to be transferred from university to school.

Just taking the example of Russian, this has affected the position of the language - for which PGCE training is concentrated principally in two universities, Sheffield and York, with Nottingham contributing - in several worrying ways.

First, some schools with which we have traditionally worked closely decided for the best of reasons that they could not take on the additional responsibilities of partnership, and so ceased to work with us.

Second, long distance placements, on which we were reliant for Russian, disappeared. Diminished funding meant that travel and accommodation costs in far flung schools could no longer be met. We entered partnerships with schools rather than individual departments within those schools, and it no longer made sense, educationally or financially, to place a single subject there.

Third, we found ourselves in the lap of the gods as to which languages our new partnership schools could offer. Last year we were fortunate enough to be able to sustain Russian, but it could so easily have been otherwise. There is now no guarantee from year to year that the required number of Russian placements can be sustained.

The financial stringency which partnership has imposed has led many university education departments to look seriously at "restructuring". Early retirement can signal the sudden departure of a subject specialist without replacement, and undermine at a stroke the survival of that subject within the institution. Most dramatically for Russian, this process meant that the University of York, for so long a flagship of language teaching excellence, from this year no longer trains Russian teachers.

Because of this considerable reduction in the training places available, Sheffield found itself with an embarras de richesse of well qualified and talented applicants for Russian. Sadly, several have had to be turned away - there is simply not enough Russian in the partnership schools to allow us to increase recruitment.

Such developments threaten the very process of diversification of languages in schools which the Government has sought to encourage. Seeing the potential teacher supply dwindle, those brave heads and governors who have sustained Russian in their schools will surely play safe in favour of a more assured supply of teachers. French will inevitably reassert its dominance, especially in a climate where the recruitment of good teachers of any language remains a major headache in many areas.

In the case of Russian, it is looking as if the efforts to sustain such a significant world language in our schools is facing a real threat. An audit of language provision in initial teacher training is essential, so that the side effects of partnership can be measured. If it is seen that the survival of Russian, and possibly other languages, is indeed under threat, then action must be taken to safeguard it - this must include additional resourcing to support links between university education departments and schools which teach the language, especially if they are geographically distant.

Events under partnership have moved swiftly. The need for action on Russian is urgent before the situation becomes much less easily retrievable.

John Trafford is a senior lecturer and director of initial teacher education at the University of Sheffield and a member of the Association for Language Learning policy committee.

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