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Primary Languages – What a Fine Mess You Got Us into Now DfE.

The Flaws:

Currently, Modern Foreign Languages are non-compulsory at Key Stage 1 (Years 1 and 2/ages 5-6). My question is, why is this acceptable when so many studies have shown that the best and most effective ages to begin language learning is from birth up to 5 years old? Why therefore, is the government not making it obligatory for a child to begin language learning in Year 1, when they start school properly or even before this at Reception?

I find it mind-boggling that we have a plethora of information from vast amounts of research that proves that exposure to language learning is best started as early as possible. If we know that our compulsory school age for children is five years old, why on earth is this not offered to our children across the board.

Obviously, there are many factors that contribute to this. The first that comes to mind is funding from the government. To ensure there are enough Primary Teachers trained to deliver effective MFL lessons, investments need to be made and as we know, what we feel is important for our children, the next generations, is not always a priority. Credit is due though to those schools who have taken it upon themselves to begin language learning at Key Stage 1. The circumstances can vary from luck (in having staff who are already trained in MFL) to having extra funding. Nevertheless, this is not a requirement and only shows how schools want this for their pupils.

The only problem this causes, which again, is only the fault of the government, is that there is no consistency between our Primary Schools. As a Secondary School Teacher, I know that this has a huge knock-on effect when our feeder Primary Schools send their pupils to us. Some come with significantly higher levels of languages than others and most secondary schools will not begin setting in MFL until after Christmas of Year 7.

Languages are however compulsory from Key Stage 2 (Age 7 and above). Key Stage 2 covers Years 3 to 6 and at the moment, there is no requirement to teach languages in all years at Key Stage 2 as long as the content of the programme is covered by the end of Year 6. This, I find incredible.

The other major flaw in the curriculum is that Primary Schools have the freedom to choose which languages they teach. Primary Schools can choose any modern or ancient foreign language. The scope for this is phenomenal. Yes, I am an advocate that exposure to a foreign language is beneficial in so many ways to our children as they acquire skills they can only get from this subject. However, when we are thinking about the curriculum, our children are expected to make a smooth transition to secondary school with no hiccups and expected to slot in just like that.

In order for a smooth transition to take place and for this to be as calm and comfortable as possible, there needs to be consistency. There is a place for ancient languages, without a doubt, but if this is not going to be taught at the feeder secondary school, are we not causing more harm than good when our child’s peers from a different primary school have a head start because they learnt a language that was being taught there as well?

The main issue here is that teachers are given zero guidance. Our Primary School Teachers are already overloaded with tasks to squeeze into the school day, pressures of where we need to get our pupils to and no extra time to fit in more and more duties that are thrown at them. The added extra of having to figure out which languages to teach and when makes it unsurprising that MFL does not become a priority in so many schools.

County Language Advisors have been cut, whose role it was previously to co-ordinate language teaching between Primary and Secondary schools. The training for our Primary School teachers is underfunded which means that not all feeder Primary Schools are teaching the same thing. This in turn, means that our pupils are all doing something different, so when they go to secondary school, they and the secondary school teachers are in a daze.

Teaching Languages:

There is always a place for teaching any modern or ancient foreign language, that is not the issue and all pupils should be exposed to as many different languages and cultures that one school can offer. However, when we are thinking about our children’s progress, the focus should be on maintaining their development past the stage that they are currently at i.e. when they progress to secondary school. If we know that our feeder schools are teaching French and Spanish for example, we should focus on getting our pupils sufficiently competent in these languages by the time they finish Year 6.

By all means, visit other languages and feed their curiosity and enthusiasm, but we need to give our children the best chance at being as successful as possible. So many times I have seen a pupil’s confidence nose-dive because they were the best in their class at Primary School at German for example, when the Secondary School only offers Spanish in Year 7. We need to see our children’s confidence soar, then we can introduce them to newer things which they will then be able to adapt to more easily.

The reality is that the more challenging 9-1 GCSE in MFL requires prior knowledge from Key Stages 2 and 3. If our pupils have not had the prior knowledge at Key Stage 2 that is required at the Secondary School, they are therefore at a major disadvantage. How are we expected to get them to the required point by the exam board?

All of our language teachers work incredibly hard at Primary and Secondary school , the buck does not lie with them. Teachers are constantly crying out for more information, for more guidance, for more a chance to get the pupils to where they are expected to be. Instead, we feel like we are constantly set up for a fall. How do get our pupils to a certain point when we are all doing something different and there is no longer a consistent measure for their levels? How can we provide accurate information inter-school and for national statistics when we are all creating our own syllabus and criteria? How are we meant to stay in this job for all of our careers when every day we are tearing our hair out because we can see just how detrimental this is to our pupils, our children?

Changes are constantly made and we are expected to keep up. Worst of all, our pupils are expected to adapt time after time, never given the chance to truly get used to one way of assessment, one set syllabus, one simple set of rules.

 The Benefits of Primary Languages:

By teaching languages in Primary Schools, effectively and as early as possible we are:

  • Developing the right attitude and frame of mind for languages as part of our children’s futures.
  • Awakening children’s interests when they are open, uninhibited and receptive.
  • Providing pupils with cognitive advantages – enhanced problem solving, attention control, the ability to switch tasks, helps with Literacy.
  • Pupils find it fun – they enjoy discovering new worlds and new ways of saying things.
  • They have a deep, natural enthusiasm that decreases as they get older.
  • Even one hour per week has the potential to awaken a lifelong interest in foreign languages. It must be welcomed and embraced in a country where foreign language learning is undervalued and in crisis.

What we want for languages in our Primary Schools:

  • Consistency across the board, across the nation – someone allocated to co-ordinate between Primary and Secondary Schools. We need to take the pressure away from our teachers and ensure that they can solely concentrate on the actual teaching, the reason why we went into this job in the first place.
  • A measure for our pupils’ abilities – we need effective communication between year groups, between schools, a measure for parents as well as teachers that means something to everyone.
  • We need provisions to begin languages earlier, just as our European counterparts do, who also offer much more than one hour of foreign language teaching per week. Beginning language learning in Key Stage 1 will give an early introduction and foundation for the curriculum at Key Stage 2.
  • We need more structure in the language teaching at Key Stage 2. We need this to be more consistent between schools, more regular, more valuable that just going from point A to point B.
  • Language teaching must be nurtured. This can no longer be seen as a phase, as a box-ticking exercise. This needs to be conveyed as a way of life and actively encouraged by all.
  • An impossibility but a necessity is that we need more funding. Specialist teachers are more successful at the delivery of language lessons as opposed to those with little or no training in foreign language pedagogy. As we know, currently funding is in dire straits, where schools are increasingly employing non-qualified teachers. As parents and masters of our craft, how are we accepting this?

All of the flaws in this policy are no doubt complimentary to our teachers. We are clearly viewed as supermen and women. We are clearly viewed as miracle workers and we are clearly viewed as work horses. All of these things we strive to be every day but let’s not forget, we are still human and most of us do not have super powers. We have resilience and tenacity, this is a remit of the job, but we need help. We need help to do what we do best – to teach effectively.

At the heart of this, for me, is that with these fairly recent changes, it is not just languages that is in crisis, but all subjects. However, as an MFL Teacher and enthusiast, languages have to become a priority for all and change has to come from the very top, with the best interests of our children in mind, nothing else.

Will this happen? Probably not but we can only hope, but in order to hope, we need to speak up and we need to keep trying to make our very silent voices heard.



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