Thursday, 1 April 2010

Primary languages - TES report

This is a little worrying, though not necessarily surprising. There is no doubt some fantastic work being done in primary schools, but I have always been a sceptic on primary languages. Why?

1.   Lack of time in curriculum
2.   Lack of expertise
3.   Lack of coordination with secondary schools

"The programme to introduce languages into primary schools has resulted in "amateurish" teaching with scant resources and potentially bad pronunciation, teachers will tell the ATL annual conference next week.
Helen Brook, who studied French at school, will describe teaching Spanish at her Cambridgeshire primary as "terrifying" and potentially insulting to properly trained languages teachers.

In a speech to the conference, she will claim that the Government should to re-evaluate the statutory teaching of languages in primaries, because more funding, training and curriculum time need to be made available.
She will say that many schools rely on brave members of staff to stay "two pages ahead" in the text book, in order to make language provision available.

She told The TES: "I think it's really commendable that children should be learning a modern language at primary school, but I don't think the programme has been well thought out.

"There is a lack of funding, time and trained teachers. There needs to be more professionalism. I volunteered to teach Spanish, but I have the equivalent in Spanish to what Manuel from Fawlty Towers has in English.
"I haven't a clue if I'm teaching the pupils anything wrongly, especially the pronunciation. I've ended up really enjoying teaching it, but I was terrified when I started, and it is really amateurish.
"I also wonder about whether our secondary school colleagues find it insulting to them. They are properly trained and I'm here allegedly teaching these children."

She said she was also concerned that secondary teachers might end up having to "unteach" mistakes.
Ms Brook's comments echo the conclusions of several recent academic studies into the impact of the primary languages drive, which was first announced in 2002.

Last September, a report from Manchester University described the delivery of the initiative as "catastrophically diverse", while a study by Cambridge University found the scheme had had very little impact at secondary level.

Last July, the National Federation for Educational Research concluded that nearly a quarter of primaries were unprepared for compulsory languages teaching, which will come into force in Year 3 of primary schools in 2011. By 2014 languages will be compulsory throughout key stage 2.

A spokesperson for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said £7 million had been spent training 5,500 primary teachers with a languages specialism since 2002.
A further 900 training places are available for 2010/11."


  1. I must admit that I share your scepticism. The problem with languages in primary school is that it seems to be a "government selling point" but the people in charge think they can do it on the cheap. In France this actually worked out quite well at the beginning because they allowed language students and native speakers (me!) to go in as "intervenants extérieurs", which meant that at least the kids got to hear what the language sounded like. Subsequent governments have decided however that it is cheaper still to get less than linguistically gifted primary school teachers do it ...As you mention in your post, these lessons unfortunately have little impact at secondary level, either because of the quality of the lessons or because the language "mastered" by the primary teacher is not the one on offer (usually English, and rarely German) as first foreign language in sixième.

    That being said, having taught in primary school, I have to admit that younger children are amazingly receptive and lessons properly done (which would mean a bit of research by educationalists, because I'm sure I wasn't doing it the best way!) would certainly help to achieve better standards in secondary school.

    Finally some would argue, at least in France, that with so many children seemingly unable to read and write properly on leaving primary school, a foreign language must come low on the list of priorities!

  2. Thanks for your comment. In my own county of North Yorkshire they have opted for the model whereby the primary teacher does the job because they were finding that some secondary teachers were not doing a good job, owing to lack of skill with younger learners.

    I'm sure the quality must be patchy, even if there is plenty of enthusiasm from children and some teachers.

    The people who organise this and train others are always full of enthusiasm and give the impression that all is well, but I have my doubts.