Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Unlocking languages

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The Rose Review recommendation that primary students are taught only one foreign language will have serious knock-on effects for secondary schools, says Peter Downes. He advocates a more enlightened approach.

Introducing foreign languages into the primary school curriculum, as the government is doing, is a welcome move. Young children pick up sounds easily, are fascinated by other languages and countries and have fewer inhibitions and prejudices than secondary pupils.

However, the government's Rose Review of the primary curriculum published in this spring recommended that just one language, or possibly two, should be taught from year 3 starting in 2011. The government wants to see 'continuity' in the transition to secondary, that is, pupils going further in the language they have already started.

This is a serious mistake and will fail to produce what the nation needs by way of foreign language skills in the 21st century.

As ASCL members well know, continuity is highly problematic. Secondary schools draw pupils from a wide range of primary schools and 'parental preference' has in some areas weakened the close links between secondaries and partner primaries.

If there is to be continuity, the one language in primary schools will by default be French. There was a time when it was useful and relevant for educated English folk to be fluent in French - the 18th to early 20th centuries. In the last two decades, the school system has woke up to the need for diversification and German, Spanish, Japanese and Mandarin have been introduced as first language options.

Living as we do in a multi-cultural society and working within a globalised economy, the UK education system needs to produce a wider range of linguists and, just as importantly, people interested in languages, positive about learning them and equipped to learn them when they need to.

That is why ASCL has developed and is promoting 'multilingual language awareness' as a model for primary schools. Funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, we have created materials and a methodology which has spread from the initial small pilot to many more primary school clusters.

The principle is simple. Pupils sample a range of languages drawn from different language families: French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Punjabi and Latin, the last being an excellent vehicle for teaching about language structure as well having obvious cross-curricular links to history and civilisation.

The course is flexible. It can be delivered by non-specialist teachers using robust materials and can thus be more easily integrated into the primary school routine. Each language is studied for about an hour a week for five to six months.

There is nothing sacrosanct about the languages in the pilot scheme. Provided there are good teaching materials available, there is no reason why Chinese, Urdu or others should not be included. The important points are to:

  • choose a range of languages that illustrate the different ways languages operate (pronunciation patterns, syntax, ways of linking sound to writing)

  • not require teachers to go beyond a fairly basic syllabus (everyday greetings, numbers, colours, family, animals, dates and times)

  • provide access to teaching materials specifically designed for non-specialist teachers (ie good sound links) and, if possible, the occasional input of a native speaker: perhaps a parent, someone from the local community or, ideally, a pupil in the class

The ASCL project has been funded for a further period and in the next year we aim to:

  • disseminate the concept and encourage more primary and secondary clusters to adopt it

  • develop teaching materials in other languages (Arabic, Russian and Polish are priorities)

  • produce a more structured syllabus of language awareness

  • track the performance and attitudes of pupils in the original project as they move through GCSE and beyond

At the time of writing, ASCL faces an impasse. We believe strongly that the model we are advocating is more likely to be successful in primary schools, offers greater flexibility for secondary schools to diversify their language curriculum and is inherently better from an educational perspective.

While we do not yet know how primary schools will be judged on modern language attainment, the fear is that Ofsted will inspect them on their adherence to the one language model, with evaluation based upon their success, or otherwise, in getting pupils to specified levels.

However, we take heart from the draft consultation documents produced by QCA for the primary curriculum consultation which state clearly that schools may use "one language or more" to meet the requirements of the area of learning described as "understanding English, communication and languages".

The draft QCA documents also make the following statements: "Children should engage with languages including, where appropriate, those used in their community"; and, "Children should understand how learning other languages can help them appreciate and understand other cultures as well as their own." These objectives fit exactly with the language awareness model.

Given that the political and educational world is spinning at an even faster rate than usual, by the time this article appears in print, some other initiative might even have been announced.

ASCL will continue to promote the multilingual scheme so that, when the one language model does prove to be unworkable, there will be an alternative ready and waiting.

Peter Downes is a former ASCL president and director of the ASCL multilingual awareness project.


Further reading...

For more information on the project go to www.ascl.org.uk/aboutus and click on 'special projects' or email peter.downes@cambridgeshire.gov.uk

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