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Primary Education News
News What does the future hold for primary languages?
A shortage of qualified teachers. A mismatch with secondary school options. Can languages in primary schools overcome the challenges ahead?
Despite the fact that you can at least get by using English in many parts of the world, there is a growing recognition that monolingual British schoolchildren are becoming ever more disadvantaged by their lack of language skills – a lack that is mirrored virtually nowhere else on the planet.
There have been various efforts at government level since the 1960s to address the deficit in language learning in the UK. All have petered out having achieved relatively little, so the new primary curriculum, which in its final draft version makes it compulsory for children to learn a modern foreign language for the four years of key stage 2 could be a vital step in the right direction. But does the requirement go far enough, and do language experts think it will work?
While the principle is welcomed, some language specialists say that the Department for Education could have been more ambitious. "I believe that age eight is already too late to begin," says Neil Strowger, headteacher at Bohunt School, a specialist languages college in Hampshire which has adopted an immersion approach whereby pupils study some curriculum subjects in a modern foreign language. "I would like to see exposure to languages begin in reception, and there are many excellent primary schools which already offer this such as Camelsdale in West Sussex."
As well as starting a new language later than many of their young counterparts in other countries – experts agree that the earlier the better – it seems there are other significant barriers to success in creating a population of better skilled and more confident linguists. The first problem, says professor Mike Kelly, director of research in languages at the university of Southampton, is the capability of primary teachers to teach children a language they will rarely be fluent – or even functional in – themselves.
"Under the previous administration there had been a big push to skill up primary teachers [in languages]. Now there is virtually nothing," he explains.
And there isn't anywhere obvious that primary teachers can go for help. "There used to be a whole community of language advisers in local authorities," notes Kelly. "All have pretty much now been made redundant. So there's not a lot of support in languages for schools."
For a long-since-graduated primary teacher with rusty French that can just about get them through a weekend in Paris, this is clearly a less than optimal environment in which to start planning language lessons for their young pupils. For children, a poor experience of learning their first foreign language could put them off for life.
"To teach languages well it's essential that teachers have a high level of fluency and grammatical understanding," says Strowger. "Primary teachers are trained specialist teachers but not in the teaching of languages. A real weakness of the previous strategy was that too often it was left to teachers with little linguistic ability or enthusiasm to deliver the language provision."
According to Dr Neil Jones of Cambridge English who directed the European Survey on Language Competencies, 80% of British schoolchildren who take a foreign language are not getting beyond the most basic possible measure of competence, "so the aspirations set out in the national curriculum will be achieved by just two to five percent of pupils" he says.
Schools do have options. Some of those redundant local authority language advisers have set up commercially, Kelly wryly observes, and are now consultants for hire. But consultants cost money, and some primary school heads will judge it an unaffordable luxury at a time when they're coping with budget cuts.
Another approach is to team up with schools who do have language experts on staff. Some secondary schools already send their modern languages teachers to run sessions in feeder primaries, explains French and Spanish teacher Adeline Fancy, who works at Forest Gate school in Newham, east London. This method works, she says, but there is no doubt that in terms of teacher time and planning, making languages compulsory for all KS2 pupils "will have an impact on languages in secondary schools, because they'll have to work more closely together."
The final draft of the new primary curriculum has accepted consultation recommendations that the original list of seven specified languages at KS2 should be dropped, so primary heads are now able to choose which language or languages to offer. While this allows schools much-valued freedom, it could also contribute to a chaotic start to pupil's secondary language learning experience, explains Strowger.
"The perennial difficulty we experience is the uneven nature of provision of languages in the primary sector," he says. "Last September we recruited pupils from 43 different primary schools and virtually every school had a different approach to language provision and teaching. This ranged from half-hour lunch time clubs to timetabled lessons each week starting in reception. This makes secondary language teaching very difficult in year 7 as there is such widespread experience of and exposure to language teaching."
This worries Kelly too. For a child who has had good language teaching in primary and enjoyed making progress, going back to square one to allow their less well taught peers to catch up will be hugely demotivating. So while he believes that educationally, the new curriculum for languages could work, he warns that "the capability of primary schools to deliver it and the amount of support they'd need to do that is not available."
"I think there's a real risk in three to four years that the problems of transition into secondary will raise a real problem – people will be asking 'what's the point of them learning languages in primary?'" And that, he points out, "is what killed off primary languages" last time around.