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Primary Education News
News Languages in primary schools – getting ready for 2014
In 2014 languages become a compulsory element of the primary curriculum. Rebecca Ratcliffe investigates what primaries have been doing to prepare for the change
When children at the Dog Kennel Hill School in London enter Fátima Duerden's classroom, they joke that they are walking into Spain. It's not just the lilt of the Spanish language spoken inside that sets it apart from the rest of their south London School. The walls are decorated in Spanish posters and books, their teacher is known by her first name, Fátima, as in a Spanish classroom – and with help from technology, pupils learn alongside Spanish peers.
"I make sure we set up at least two Skype sessions a term with our partner schools in Spain," says Duerden, who trained as a teacher in Portugal, her home country, and now works as a Spanish teacher, modern foreign language and international coordinator at Dog Kennel Hill.
"It gives children a chance to discuss a topic they are learning with a native speaker. The children respond very positively because it's interactive and it gives them a chance to use vocabulary and grammar in a real-life context."
It's a type of primary school lesson which may become more common across England, as changes to the curriculum make foreign languages compulsory across key stage two. From 2014 onwards, students aged seven to 11 will be required to reach a high standard of written and spoken communication in one of seven languages, including: French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Spanish, Latin and Greek.
Almost all primaries (97%) provide language teaching within class time to some of their seven to 11 year olds, a survey of 3,000 state primary schools by the CfBT Education Trust suggests. But the quality and quantity of provision varies across the country says Kathryn Board, head of languages strategy at the CfBT, an education charity which has merged with Cilt, formerly the National Centre for Languages.
"When you scratch beneath the surface you'll see there is an enormous diversity of things happening under the label of languages at key stage two – from a few words and a song to quite rigorous teaching. For some the new curriculum and the emphasis it places on grammar and written language will be a challenge, for others it'll be business as usual."
The number of primary schools teaching a language increased rapidly when the Labour government introduced the national languages strategy in 2002, an initiative that gave heads eight years to introduce a foreign language at key stage two. But in 2011 around two thirds of the money behind primary languages was reallocated to the general school budget, causing many schools to stop developing their language teaching. Funding for local authority language advisers was also cut.
Now, the picture is a mixed one. While more than 80% of schools say they are at least reasonably confident about teaching languages in key stage two, one third have no arrangements to assess pupils' progress.
A lack of staff expertise is also a major concern. As many as 23% have no member of staff with language competence higher than GCSE level and up to 8.5% may have no language expertise at all within their school.
"Primary teachers are fantastically enthusiastic about languages and they're willing to take it on," says Lid King, chair of Speak to the Future, a campaign for languages. "But understandably they are a bit nervous – they didn't sign up to teach languages."
Patricia Driscoll, reader in education at Canterbury Christ Church University, says universities and colleges are working hard to plug the gap in expertise.
"The greatest challenge for the sustainability of primary languages is teacher supply. This isn't just a problem in the UK, it's a problem across the world from the States to Hong Kong."
Schools are employing a variety of staffing models to meet the challenge – from recruiting a specialist to teach across the school, to employing a native speaker from the local community to work alongside classroom teachers or running training sessions with staff from local secondary schools.
"A lot of teachers would appreciate a bit more guidance and practical help, whether it's schemes of work or things they might be able to read," adds Board. "That's obviously not what the government wants to do – they want to provide big headlines and how you get there is up to you. But it's quite tricky because we must not forget this is a new subject, it's never been compulsory at key stage two before."
This lack of resources is exacerbated by funding cuts, which have reduced many of the support networks built up during the last 10 years, says Marina Dixon, who previously worked as a primary language adviser at Suffolk Council but has since been reemployed as a primary partnership adviser.
In her new role Dixon still manages to provide support for languages, running a foreign language assistant programme and organising international links with schools in China and Nord-Pas-de-Calais. But very few local authorities continue to provide such services.
"Before, we had a huge network of local authority advisers and of course Cilt, which was the leading body for languages nationally. Now that network has been significantly diminished.
"I can help by identifying schools with similar needs and offering targeted support. Schools need to share resources and training because budgets are so small."
Greater collaboration can also help ease students' transition from key stage two to three. At the moment many children learn one foreign language in key stage two, only for this to be discontinued when they start at secondary school, where a different language is taught.
But switching languages risks damaging pupils' progression, says Board. "There is a danger that if you're starting something new and you're at an age when you think you look silly, you're not going to learn as well."
The list of seven languages drawn up by Michael Gove is contentious. While some fear it is too long and will create unnecessary variation between schools, others question why Arabic, Russian or some of the UK's community languages are not recommended.
"In Sheffield, some primary students are learning Somali, because they're based in the Somali part of the city," says Board. "By teaching Somali the school unifies all children around a language that's spoken in the community. Pupils who aren't from the Somali community have a chance to try it out because it's in all the local shops. It also helps children who speak Somali at home but have a poor model of the language because they are also being taught English by their parents."
"If the school is suddenly required to redirect resources towards French, for example, then maybe that school would feel it was losing something special."
Driscoll fears the draft curriculum does not place enough emphasis on developing children's cultural understanding. "In 'purpose of study' the draft curriculum says: 'Learning a foreign language is liberation from insularity and provides an opening to other cultures.' But then when you come to the 'curriculum aims' and 'subject content' there's nothing about culture."
"Languages are taught through interactive methods but also through cultural identity and understanding," she says. Driscoll fears the cultural aspect of language learning has also been undermined by the withdrawal of government funding for the bilateral exchange programme which allowed trainee teachers to develop their language skills and awareness abroad.
But Driscoll, like many, believes that the draft curriculum is a step in the right direction.
For Dr Shirley Lawes, subject leader in the PGCE in languages at the Institute of Education, University of London, it shows that languages have successfully vied for a place in the school day.
"The important thing is that whatever learning occurs early on is sustained and developed. The new curriculum is saying that you've got to take languages seriously – not necessarily by teaching in a formal way, but by taking it as seriously as every other area of learning. There has to be time and expertise dedicated to it. 20 minutes a week won't achieve the levels the key stage two curriculum requires."