Why Sir Ron should listen to the CBI

13th October 1995 at 01:00
Kathy Wicksteed on how an entitlement to languages at 16-19 could be made to work.

Sir Ron Dearing's Interim Review of 16-19 qualifications makes only two mentions of language learning in 67 pages, but they are important ones. It states: "For the long term, the CBI asks whether modern language competence should become as much a core skill as those listed above . . ." And later, referring to a possible advanced level National Certificate combining breadth with depth: "It would be relevant to consider how breadth might be secured within such an award, especially in the subsidiary subject areas. For example, should a modern foreign language be among the required subjects?" Our answer to both the CBI's question and Sir Ron's must surely be a resounding yes. For students growing up in a multilingual world with an explosion in global communications, can anyone doubt the place of foreign language competence as a core skill?

Of course, such widespread curriculum reform should not be undertaken lightly. There must be an unrushed, carefully planned, phased introduction with ample opportunities for schools and colleges to plan provision and for teachers to become familiar with the new courses.

Most important of all, the quality of courses must be extremely high. We have not only to present the case for compulsory language study to 16-19 students and their parents, we have to prove it. I am convinced this can be done. What must be the key features of a saleable compulsory 16-19 modern language curriculum?

First, we can't offer merely more of the same. The rationale for the core curriculum must be distinctive and clear. Our argument will be, "GCSE has given you a useful basic communicative competence; now it is essential to prepare to use your language skills at work." Those wishing to study more than the minimum core can of course move beyond a vocational emphasis.

Wherever possible, core courses should be linked to pupils' other areas of study, so that they gain, for example, their core unit in Spanish while undertaking some research in Madrid for their GNVQ in art and design. Such links can equally be made with academic courses, whether chemistry, geography or politics. The core units should also be tied in to "real life" through work experience, visits to local companies or practical research projects.

Second, the core unit must count towards a final 16-19 qualification, whether vocational or academic. Students are only human, after all, and little will be learned unless they take it seriously. This could be achieved through a credit or points system.

Third, the choice must be wide, flexible and inviting. Here is a chance to invigorate 16-19 language learning with beginners' courses in Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Italian among many others, as well as the increasingly popular Japanese. We will do much for international competitive challenge at the same time. Students from Britain's Asian communities should all have an opportunity to improve their knowledge of their parents' language and gain credit for their linguistic skills. The more whitestudents learning Asian languages too, the better will be our mutual understanding.

Fourth, the new courses must be designed to encourage the very best quality of teaching and learning.

There has been an extraordinary, sometimes painful revolution in language teaching in secondary schools in the past three years. Teachers have been obliged to conduct lessons almost entirely through the medium of the target language, and to teach the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing in combination. Often they have have felt deskilled by this process, forced to abandon trusted teaching techniques.

But those of us who spend time sitting at the backs of language classrooms have seen the quality of students' learning blossom. The new post-16 curriculum should build on the good methodological practice of 11-16 courses - some-thing GNVQ language units, with separately accredited skills and time spent completing paperwork in English, have signally failed to do.

But it is essential to keep the most important feature of GNVQs if we are to offer units with a distinctive adult feel. This is their stress on independent learning and assignment-based assessment. If students are to gain a unit through a practical project, tailored to fit in with their other courses, it goes without saying that assessment cannot be exam-based. So I would propose that accreditation for the core skill unit should be based on the completion of mixed-skill coursework assignments.

Finally, the core skill units must be available to students of all abilities. All students will have to compete for jobs, will travel abroad, will increasingly need to use a foreign language, whether as a bus conductor or a biochemist. This implies the development of units at foundation, intermediate and advanced level. A structure that combines a points system, maximum flexibility and a range of levels can only be achieved by a coherent ladder of qualifications which includes both the vocational and academic, as is already being introduced in Scotland. The minimum core skill requirement would be small, and those who wished could add to it by taking further modules at the same level or moving on to a higher level. One of the difficulties in the introduction of optional GNVQ language units has been the rigid requirement to gain units at level 2, making most beginners' courses impossible.

It is time more people realised how much can be achieved by a little foreign language competence. The confidence of British citizens to say a few simple courtesies in a range of languages could transform our tourist industry.

Once we as nation have accepted that a foreign language is part of education at all levels, we may also learn to view the world with a slightly less xenophobic eye. We can't afford to waste this opportunity to create a new 16-19 language curriculum. I hope Sir Ron will listen to the CBI.

o The Association for Language Learning is holding a consultation day on the place of modern languages in the 16-19 curriculum on November 1. For details, tel: 01788 546443 Kathy Wicksteed is chair of the Association for Language Learning's policy committee and an inspectoradvisor for Hampshire county council

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