Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

More progress needed on modern foreign language provision

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ASCL members could face a return to compulsory languages study if post-14 uptake does not improve, says Brian Lightman. Here he outlines the main recommendations from the Dearing languages review.

Lord Dearing's final report to the DfES on modern foreign languages (MFL) was published in March and it is clear from the outcome that ASCL's views were carefully considered. ASCL representatives met with Lord Dearing several times and made written submissions informed by a lively Council debate.

Lord Dearing stated from the outset that the decline in uptake of MFL is a serious cause for concern. The interim and final reports provide a detailed commentary on the current state of play and do not duck any of the substantial and sometimes controversial challenges. An ambitious action programme is proposed to engage more pupils in studying languages and several themes stand out amongst the wide-ranging recommendations.

Probably the biggest area of debate was whether to reintroduce compulsory MFL at key stage 4. The review accepted ASCL's arguments against this and recommended instead a target of 50-90 per cent uptake supported by a number of improvements to provision, which are close to our recommendations. 

Return to compulsion

The report nevertheless makes it very clear that MFL could and will be made compulsory again if there is not satisfactory progress towards this target. A deadline of 2010 is proposed but schools are urged to make progress towards the target by September 2008. Members are advised to give this their urgent consideration in order to avoid a return to compulsion.

We were pleased that performance indicators measuring participation and attainment at GCSE are recommended for formative use only as information for parents rather than an addition to the school profile.

Our Council debate revealed strong views as to why students are not motivated to learn languages, in particular pointing to a national curriculum that does not inspire or engage students.

The report responded to this by agreeing that "a one-menu-suits-all approach to secondary children is not working for many of our children". It argues for a 'new paradigm' for languages with more varied options. It recommends changes to the assessment of speaking and listening using accredited teacher assessment and a move away from the current oral and listening exams which can be very stressful for students.

The report also responded to ASCL's assertion that languages are more demanding at GCSE than many other subjects and recommended that this is resolved by a definitive study. This is a major issue which has been of great concern to MFL teachers for a long time.

Primary schools

A major recommendation was to widen the range of languages on offer in primary schools and to make MFL part of the statutory curriculum at key stage 2. Informal assessment based on the Languages Ladder at KS2 would assist transition.

The report is refreshingly clear that assessment is for formative purposes and "should not be the basis for any league tables". 

Whilst the emphasis on the importance of effective transition is welcome there will be considerable challenges in making this compatible with the recommendation that a wider range of languages be offered in primary schools.

The report recommendations reflected ASCL's view that employers should give a higher priority to MFL, such as building on the good practice exemplified by many multinationals and embassies. 

Lord Dearing is quite clear that employers and government have the responsibility to strongly communicate these messages about the importance of foreign languages.

Planning for the future

Is this problem going to go away? Definitely not. Colleagues are strongly recommended to incorporate MFL into their development plans.

Although ASCL argued strongly that school leaders should be trusted to implement this without a raft of additional accountability measures, the report still contains some recommendations which smack of the kind of micromanagement ASCL opposes, including the use of SEFs and SIPs to put pressure on schools to deliver.

ASCL warned about the dangers inherent in this kind of approach and we will continue to put forward our views strongly if any specific proposals emerge. However our chances of success will depend on the progress we all make to turn around the decline in MFL in our schools. After all, that is what we all want.

ASCL's recent publication Alive and Kicking: Case studies in teaching foreign languages is a good starting point for members looking for ways to enhance their MFL provision. 

Brian Lightman is ASCL vice president and head of St Cyres School.


For a copy of the Dearing report, visit www.teachernet.gov.uk/languagesreview

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