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View from the brink of disaster

Is language teaching heading for a crisis of falling standards? Eddie Ross thinks so

Is modern languages in crisis? Colleagues from other schools report that the idealism and enthusiasm they started out with has given way to disillusion and despair. The experiences I hear recounted daily can only be described as horror stories, in which teachers face a daily diet of indiscipline and non-cooperation from pupils who would rather be anywhere else, and let everyone know it.

The major cause of stress, dissatisfaction and frustration seems to come from the 15 and 16-year-old pupils forced to study a language they have not the slightest desire to learn. Classes are a constant struggle to maintain discipline, with teachers spending endless hours preparing material that is hardly looked at. No wonder they are exhausted.

I have been a modern languages teacher for 36 years, 10 of them as head of department in a large sixth-form college. Over that time, I have obtained pleasure and satisfaction from teaching French and German to co-operative, intelligent and motivated youngsters, most of whom want to learn and work hard.

I have always tried to stress the positive. But with so many stories of gloom, I wonder how many other teachers share these concerns. Is language teaching in crisis or is my perception of the situation excessively pessimistic?

Some of the reports I hear make dismal listening. Teachers tell of a lack of disciplinary support from senior staff members. Heads of department speak of young, committed teachers who have left the profession or who are looking for other jobs.

On top of the concerns for languages itself, how much money is being wasted in salaries and resources to finance lessons that benefit no one. Teachers who mark GCSE scripts report whole centres where few pupils seem capable of writing the most basic sentences in French. Orally the situation seems no better. A colleague marking the oral section says he regularly hears conversations such as: "Que fate ta mere?" followed by a long hesitation, then: "Mon metre eat cheese-packer." One wonders what the pupil has been doing during five years of French lessons.

Another frequent complaint is that committed pupils are prevented from learning the language by the behaviour of pupils who are in the group against their will and who disrupt classes and waste large amounts of the teacher's time. The result is that able pupils who want to learn under-perform at GCSE and do not continue with languages to A-level.

Some students starting my own A-level courses have shown considerable gaps in their knowledge of basic grammar. Teachers cannot take knowledge of even the simplest rules for granted.

The examination boards must take part of the blame. They have made it easier to obtain high grades at GCSE.

Colleagues tell me that the demands of the national curriculum are having a disastrous effect on second language teaching because good linguists find it increasingly difficult to opt for two languages at GCSE. A colleague in a Liverpool school says his German class has been shrinking over the past three years. He believes the situation is so bad German A-level will disappear from his school within two years. I am not an expert in the workings of the national curriculum but I do know that 10 years ago many students starting an A-level German course in my department would have had four lessons a week for four years at their previous school. Today some students have had no more than two lessons a week for two or three years.

The national press frequently reports that standards have fallen at A-level. This is a generalisation that is only partly true. The best students today are certainly producing work just as good as that produced by students 20 or 30 years ago. In many ways it is more creative and original and they certainly have far more ability to discuss current events and issues, and have a wider knowledge of recent developments in European countries. But the boards have made it easier to achieve a pass at A-level. So students with grade C, D or E will have serious gaps in their knowledge and this, I suspect, explains the universities' constant complaints about falling standards.

Language teaching in universities is another source of concern. Former students who have gone on to study languages at university tell me, almost without exception, that much more work was required for A-level than for their degree. Some have said their knowledge of the language has deteriorated. Others tell of students passing, even though they have attended few classes and done very little work.

Erasmus students from other countries have diplomatically told me of their amazement at how little British undergraduates have to do.

I have heard of one school which takes honours graduates in languages for the practical part of their teacher training. In recent years the staff at this school have noticed a distinct and alarming deterioration in the knowledge possessed by these graduates of the languages they are supposed to teach.

Am I an old Jeremiah or has language teaching in Britain become a disaster area?

Eddie Ross is head of modern languages at Colchester Sixth Form College

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