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Mind your language

Sarah Badger makes the case for learning other languages in primary and secondary schools

Posted by Hannah Oakman | June 01, 2016 | Teaching

With the place of independent schools in our education system under debate, one interesting fact highlighted by the ISC is that the difference in achievement between independent and state schools is greatest in French, history and geography. As head of French and MFL in an independent school, this is a subject dear to my heart. Why do independent schools excel in languages and specifically French? 

In recent years 'languages for all' has been introduced, dropped and introduced again on the back of the EBacc. It's been a half-hearted attempt to value languages without there being a clear strategy for implementing them effectively in the primary and secondary curriculum. When languages reverted to being optional at GCSE in 2004, many schools chose not to keep them as core subjects. The DfE introduced the EBacc in 2010, but with languages still not compulsory, many schools 'encouraged' rather than insisted and pupils voted with their feet. Still more worryingly, some schools have actively discouraged less able pupils from studying a language. It was a welcome move when the government announced in June 2015 that all EBacc subjects should now be taken to GCSE, but whether this will translate into 'languages for all' remains to be seen. We have been here before.

In this age of global uncertainty, the case for language learning has never seemed so vital. And yet the number of students studying languages is in decline. University languages departments are warning that they will close and universities are offering incentives for students to take up a language alongside other studies. GCHQ recently set up a centre to teach their new recruits foreign languages because not enough have studied them to a high level. This sharp drop in the take-up of foreign languages has been well documented and is part of a crisis which starts at primary level and continues to A2, to university and beyond. The end product is a nation of people who are predominantly monolingual.

We have a moral responsibility to educate our young people to embrace foreign cultures and their languages

Yet throughout these past few years, as languages were being dropped or 'disapplied' by many state schools and when softer options were being chosen to boost results, independent schools have continued to support the teaching of foreign languages to GCSE. In the case of French, pupils in independent schools start learning at a very young age. Children are like sponges. They learn their own language effortlessly and, when taught in an age-appropriate way, they soak up a foreign language without realising that it's different from their own. Independent schools have understood that the best way to develop confidence and proficiency in language learning is to start teaching pupils at a very young age. The majority of prep schools offer French and many pupils begin their secondary education well ahead of pupils in the state sector who have not been able to access specialist teaching because of a lack of funding and the absence of a coherent government strategy. State primary schools have developed many resourceful ways to counter this problem with after-school clubs and some fabulous online resources, but without specialist teachers and regular exposure to language learning, pupils in state schools cannot develop their confidence in the same way as those in the independent sector. 

There is undoubtedly a wider role in our society for the promotion of foreign languages. TV news broadcasts could be shown with subtitles rather than being dubbed; more foreign films could be screened; foreign music could become the norm on radio stations. Already there has been a surge in enthusiasm for foreign drama being shown in its original language, which is a welcome and refreshing development. And of course schools have a huge part to play. In our modern, increasingly fractured world we have a moral responsibility to educate our young people to embrace foreign cultures and their languages and to look beyond the narrow confines of their own. We should welcome the return to 'languages for all' through the EBacc and hope that the DfE holds firm this time. 

Sarah Badger is head of MFL at Lord Wandsworth College W: 

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