Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Remember this?

In 2002 the Department for Education and Skills produced a document entitled:  Languages for All; Languages for Life - a Strategy for England. Here were the three over-arching objectives which were laid out in that document:

1. To improve teaching and learning of languages, including delivering an entitlement to language learning for pupils at Key Stage 2, making the most of e-learning and ensuring that opportunity to learn languages has a key place in the transformed secondary school of the future

2. To introduce a recognition system to complement existing qualification frameworks and give people credit for their language skills

3. To increase the number of people studying languages in further and higher education and in work-based training by stimulating demand for language learning, developing Virtual Language Communities and encouraging employers to play their part in supporting language learning

Now, I cannot support what I am going to say with detailed facts and figures, but the essence is about right.

Since 2002 primary school modern languages have seen considerable progress, recently halted, but that progress has been patchy and it certainly has not led to a noticeable improvement in proficiency or take-up at older age levels. Realistically it could probably be described as a partial success at best. As far as improving the quality of teaching and learning, this must be very hard to demonstrate. You would have to ask Ofsted what they have discovered, but my hunch is that any progress must have been marginal. In any case, improvement would be hard to measure given the huge reduction in the number of children doing languages at KS4.

As regards e-learning, well, there has been some progress in this field, with greater investment in equipment in schools (England, according to the OECD, has an excellent ratio of computers per pupil, for example), but progress in individualised e-learning has been limited and electronic links with overseas schools are very restricted for all kinds of practical reasons. There has not been a strong drive from above on this.

Most objective observers would have to conclude that progress on point 1 of the strategy has been disappointing.

As regards point 2, a recognition system, or "languages ladder", was introduced and Asset Languages saw some growth, although I read that take-up for Asset qualifications has declined recently. I doubt very much whether it has seen much use at its higher levels. League tables have meant that GCSE maintains a stranglehold on entries even though its assessment systems are inferior to those employed by Asset in Cambridge. My impression is that we have not seen Asset taking off and becoming established in the same way as music exams have. Maybe a renewed drive is needed on this.

Point 3 - this has been a miserable failure. Whilst higher education institutions have made good progress with internationalisation and language courses for non-specialists, the number of specialist linguists has declined alarmingly, a trend just confirmed with a record fall in applications for modern languages this year ( a fall of over 20% compared with last year - UCAS). I am not sure whether "Virtual Language Communities" (whatever they are) have seen the light of day and the reference to employers playing their part looks very vague, doesn't it?

One is left with an impression of honorable intentions not backed up by political will or follow-through. The feeling since 2002 is one of decline, not progress.

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