Thursday, 28 June 2012

Une vaste supercherie

 J'ai trouvé juste cette analyse de l'enseignement de l'anglais dans les écoles primaires en France. La même analyse s'appliquerait à l'enseignement des language svivantes dans le primaire en Angleterre.

Lucien Marboeuf, blogueur de l'Express, titre son billet de blog: “L’anglais à l’école : good joke !” Selon lui, “l’anglais à l’école primaire est une vaste supercherie. ”. Il rappelle que cela tient d’abord à la question du volume horaire des enseignements. En CE2, CM1 ou CM2 il faut faire entre 1 h 30 et 2 heures d’anglais par semaine de 24 heures..

Mais la raison principale de l'échec "reste celle de l’incompétence des enseignants. Bien sûr, une solution aurait été de fournir aux classes de primaire des « intervenants en langue ». […] Le problème, c’est que ça coûte de l’argent : on a donc supprimé ces postes-là, il n’y a aujourd’hui quasiment plus d’intervenants en primaire. ”. Et ne lui parlez pas de l’“habilitation” qui selon lui, relève aussi de la supercherie.

Il conclut : “Résumons-nous : une minorité d’élèves a la chance d’avoir un instit qui, pour des raisons personnelles (cursus professionnel, études, vie perso), a un bon niveau d’anglais ; les autres élèves, moins chanceux, ont un instit comme moi, qui a suivi une « formation » de piètre qualité et obtenu une habilitation fantoche mais essaie de se débrouiller avec son niveau d’anglais qui est somme toute celui du français moyen.De toute façon, à quoi bon ? Un prof d’anglais de collège sur deux vous le dira : vu l’hétérogénéité du niveau des élèves arrivant en 6ème, le plus simple est de reprendre depuis le début. Mais tout cela n’est pas bien grave, le plus important est de pouvoir dire que les enfants français apprennent l’anglais depuis l’âge de 6 ans, sir.

(Merci à Philippe Watrelot)

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

So what's changed in MFL teaching in 32 years?

The end of a teaching career is very close for me now, so I am bound to reflect on a few issues. How is French teaching different now compared with when I began teaching at Tiffin School, Kingston-upon-Thames in 1980?

The resources at our disposal as language teachers are far better than they were. Course books are better, less dogmatic in their underlying methodology, more colourful, more pupil-friendly and supported by a wide range of resources: repromasters, CDs, assessment packs and online resources. There is an enormous range of freely shared and commercial resources available online through support networks such as the TES and mflresources, as well as superb individual web sites such as My own web site has made a useful contribution, whilst forums and Twitter have made the sharing of ideas ever easier.

I have gone from cassettes, to CDs, to online resources. I have gone from recording broadcasts from long wave radio to using a vast range of readily available online recordings. Authentic reading in 1980 was provided by literature or occasional access to French newspapers and magazines. Unreliable language labs using reel to reel or cassettes were in use, reflecting the fashion for the audio-lingual approach.The internet now provides masses of excellent authentic material.

Methodology has moved on. Having been taught at Gillingham Grammar School by Colin Wringe and others using an enlightened oral approach, based heavily on the question and answer, and trained in London using the same methodology, I have gradually been influenced by the communicative movement and made more and more use of information gap and pair work. In addition, I have always been happy to embrace a significant does of grammar-translation, particularly at A-level, although this has mainly been with the exam in mind. It is notable how A-level has clung on to testing styles inherited from the the 1950s and earlier, when universities set the agenda for A-level content.

I have been influenced by question-answer, audio-lingual, grammar-translation and communicative methods. Functional/notional syllabuses never made sense to me and they were thankfully a passing fad. We now seem to be in a "post methods" era, where we use an eclectic mix of approaches. Grammar has made a bit of a comeback, but lack of time in many schools makes it hard to embed.

In very recent years the influence of assessment for learning techniques has made a slightly stronger mark, though has changed things relatively little. Pupil voice has been more influential. When I began my career it would have been unusual to ask students what they thought of their own progress and the quality of their teaching. In general terms we communicate far more effectively with students than we used to, although my impression of pupils is that they have not changed very much. Being more attentive to their needs has probably made them less conspiratorial.

Examinations have moved on. In 1980 an O-level paper featured translation both ways, picture composition, multiple choice reading comprehension and listening comprehension, with the teacher reading aloud. GCSE was a positive step forward in 1987 and since then it has evolved sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Controlled assessment has been a retrograde step and an aberration for reasons which are well known to MFL teachers. At A-level we have moved away from the detailed study of prescribed texts (essentially a preparation for university languages courses), to a more relevant and palatable mix of cultural content (including film, history, geography and the arts), usually chosen by the teacher. Oral work and listening has been given a greater priority, though still not enough in my view.

We have always taught strongly to the test, but we are forever more accountable for our students' results. Freely available specifications and model answers have led us to prepare our students more and more thoroughly for the exam. No wonder grades tend to go up. In MFL, though, there has been less grade inflation than in some other subject areas and MFL remains a tough GCSE and A-level subject. It has been frustrating to see the GCSE grading goalposts move around as the exam boards have tried to cope with rising (from 1987), then falling (from 2004) numbers of candidates. I can assure you that it is harder in 2012 to get an A* grade than it was in the early nineties. At A-level an A grade is still hard to get, but weaker candidates find it easier to pass.

We mark just as much, but there has been more and more pressure to produce inventive and varied lessons. We are observed, managed and graded far more. In general I would say this has been a necessary and useful development, but it has no doubt led to greater levels of stress in the profession. We have also been encouraged to measure our pupils against national standards, using over-elaborate systems of levels and sub-levels. I have resisted this obsession with levelling as much as possible. I cannot see how it has improved standards in language teaching.

Report writing has changed a good deal. In 1980 the sheet of A4 was standard with room for a letter grade, percentage, rank order in the class, effort grade and brief comment. Rank orders are gone - good riddance. Parents deserve a little more detail than they got years ago, but modern reports risk being too descriptive and insufficiently analytical.

Timetabling in my schools (Tiffin, Hampton School and Ripon GS) has always been sensible for language teaching. In many other schools the move to one hour lessons and two week timetables has done languages a terrible disservice and many students do not have a chance of developing competence on such a limited diet. Many school leaders do not get the principle of little and often so MFL has suffered accordingly.

In my little area of selective schooling French has remained a quite desirable subject, all the more so as students travel far more regularly. Parents and pupils generally see the worth of language learning and I have very rarely experienced genuine antipathy to the subject.

I shall miss the classroom, my colleagues, trips and exchanges; the marking... not so much.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Michael Gove's O-levels

Well, that was bombshell yesterday, wasn't it? Certainly for other members of the coalition government who hadn't been told. What are we to make of Michael Gove's intention to ditch GCSEs, the national curriculum and multiple exam boards for subjects? Teachers have not asked for it? Nor parents? Some have sought an end to a 16+ exam full stop, but that's another matter.

Gove's claim is that GCSEs are not hard enough and that having different exam boards offering the same subject leads to dumbing down of content. His desire to do away with the national curriculum seems mostly to do with his conservative desire not to tell teachers what to do.

His inspiration seems to be the Singapore education system which sorts children into sheep and goats at an early stage, channelling them into different exams.

Gove's "O-level" would not be like the one which lasted up to 1987 as it would be aimed, we are told, at the top 75% of the school population. By setting more "rigorous" exams we would raise standards and compete more successfully in the PISA league tables (note that the new exams are proposed initially for maths, English and science, the only subjects measured by PISA).


It occurs to me that the current GCSE is not sat by all pupils, so it is false to claim that it is a universal exam. It also occurs to me that, in modern languages, it is, generally speaking, reasonably challenging. My grammar school pupils are challenged and, despite the dubious nature of controlled assessments, we have complained little of the general level of difficulty. I cannot speak for my colleagues in maths, English and science, although I have never heard them complain about the levels of challenge in GCSE. In MFL there has been no noticeable grade inflation; in fact we have seen a certain degree of grade deflation at the A*/A grade area..

The existing GCSE, with its tiering system, allows for differentiation, and it is only in the highest powered independent schools that you see masses of A* grades. Teachers do not generally complain that it is too easy.

Michael Gove talks about taking the best from the highest performing educational jurisdictions. Singapore does well in PISA, but then so does Finland. These two nations have quite contrasting educational systems. the former being quite elitist and sorting pupils by ability at an early age, the latter using a fully comprehensive system. When he chooses the Singapore model he is reflecting his own prejudice. Creating a two tier examination system will not, as far as I can see, promote social mobility, and the students not doing the new "O-level" will be seen as second class pupils, just as CSE was seen as a worthless exam up against O-level pre 1987.

As for the national curriculum, why have one at primary level but not at secondary? In any case, we would end up with a de facto national curriculum set by the exam boards setting the exams. To my mind, it is entirely reasonable for a government to lay out, in simple terms, the general areas which children should study. What we have now, with some schools having to follow the NC and others not, is a dog's breakfast.

As for exam boards, I have no problem with doing away with competition between boards for subjects. Individual boards can always offer varying syllabuses in any case, to allow some flexibility and choice for teachers.

Michael Gove is in too much of a rush and in this case he is not responding to a perceived need. This seems like fag packet policy-making and I hope he gets slapped down promptly.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

MYLO - Joseph's French Dinners

I wrote some time ago about the MYLO Track List challenge which my Y9 class have begun to use with success.

My Y10 class today worked on a new French "challenge" called Joseph's French Dinners. I have never seen this class so absorbed for 30 minutes in a regular lesson.

The format is familiar if you have used the site before. Students work through a series of interactive tasks, some focused mainly on reading comprehension, some on listening and a few on writing. The main emphasis is on high quality listening and reading, however.

I have to compliment the writers. The exercises feature authentic language pitched well for students, in this case, aiming for grade B or thereabouts at GCSE. A* students would find the activities challenging enough, but with less recourse to the dictionary which is built into the programme.

Content is interesting, lively, very clearly presented, whilst the tasks are diverse, including sorting vocabulary into categories, matching French and English expressions, box ticking, gap filling and writing short phrases. Recordings sound clear and authentic and students can access a transcription if they wish. Each task is very clearly presented and has to be completed before you move on.

My class of 28 students (who do not automatically get their heads down to work hard at a task) worked away happily and purposefully for 30 minutes, getting through about three or four of the tasks. They reported to me that they found the tasks at the right level and interesting. We shall need another lesson or two to complete the whole thing. The language supports our controlled assessment theme of food.

Sir had to do very little apart from answering the occasional question.

I remain impressed with the MYLO material and I am pleased that it has not disappeared from the web under the coalition.


Monday, 18 June 2012

Ripon GS MFL department

Had a good get-together on Sunday with my department and its new HoD, Tom Chamberlain. Here we are. What a jolly bunch!

Matthew, Sandy, Felicity, Tom, Anne, Steve

Tom is taking over from me in September. Sandy is moving on to Barnard Castle School.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Rythmes scolaires

Il est toujours fascinant de comparer la manière dont nos deux pays (l'Angleterre et la France) abordent la question des rythmes scolaires. De ce côté de la Manche on insiste surtout sur la durée des vacances d'été et le fait que les élèves oublient trop de connaissances pendant cette periode de six ou sept semaines. On évoque également les tarifs élevés du mois d'août. En France le débat se concentre sur deux aspects: l'organisation de la semaine (4 ou 5 jours) et l'organisation de l'année (faut-il avoir toujours des vacances d'au moin sdeux semaines).

Le nouveau gouvernement veut procéder le plus vite possible à la semaine de 5 jours (plus précisément 4 jours et demi, le mercredi après-midi restant sacré). Cela semble relever du bon sens et la plupart des académies ont déjà fait ce choix.

Quant aux vacances la France est plus influencée que nous par l'opinion des spécialistes de l'étude des rythmes biologiques et psychologiques. Cette opinion est formelle: les écoliers ont besoin de deux semaines pour profiter pleinement des vacances.

C'est curieux. Personne n'en parle ici. Je me demande si ces mêmes spécialistes préconiseraient des journées de six heures pour les collégines et sept heures pour les lycéens.

Autre aspect: la France doit prendre en considération les besoins de l'industrie touristique, surtout ceux des stations de ski. On ne peut pas sous-estimer les difficultés causées par la circulation sur les routes des Alpes et des Pyrénées. C'est la raison pour laquelle il est difficile de garantir des congés de deux semaines pour tout le monde. Le système des trois zones réduit le nombre de routes saturées en février et à Pâques.

En Angleterre nous voyons le tourisme sous un autre aspect, notamment le fait que le prix des vacances est très élevé dans la haute saison du mois d'août. C'est pour cela qu'on a souvent proposé des zones ou des vacances d'été plus courtes, ce qui permettrait des vacances plus longues au mois de mai ou juin, par exemple.

Conclusion? Je ne suis pas un spécialiste, mais je proposerais des journées plus courtes en France, des semaines de 5 jours et des vacances d'été plus courtes. Le sytème des zones devrait rester en place. L'organisation de la semaine et de l'année fonctionne plutôt bien en Angleterre, mais on pourrait réduire un peu la durée des vacances d'été et ajuster le début et la fin de ces vacances en créant un rota par "county" ou région.

French Radio London

Thanks to Dominic McGladdery for reminding us about this. It is sometimes claimed that London is France's sixth largest city. Based on population alone this may or may not be true. (I have no idea how anyone would know exactly how many French people are residing in London at any one time and I doubt the figures bandied around: between 200 to 300 thousand.)

In any case French Radio London has been around for a while and it's a good resource for A-level students and teachers and for adults wanting to improve their listening skills. Of course, it is easy these days to listen to a huge range of francophone channels on the radio (the TuneIn app is brilliant for this if you have a mobile device), but French Radio London has its own particular audience in mind and its content may have particular appeal for British listeners.

You can listen live to discussions and music (francophone or anglophone) or you can access the archive of listen-again programmes, which include interviews and features. A glance through the archives reveals features on, for example, the diamond jubilee, the recent parliamentary elections, Julie Delpy, a homage to Edith Piaf and a feature on the film The Artist.

It's all sponsored by a range of French companies listed on its partners page. If you wish to win a prize you can take part in one of its online competitions. You can currently win a Tom Tom by writing, in English or French, about your best summer holiday.

But you know, what I haven't yet come across in my searches is the ideal A-level listening site with interviews pitched at AS/A2 and accompanying interactive exercises. As it is, I am happy to recommend to students sites such as Curiosphere, Lafrancebis (now partly subscription, I believe), Audiolingua, Médecins sans Frontières and Podcast Français Facile (also in iTunes).

When I recall that when I began teaching you were lucky to be able to pick up France Inter on long wave radio! Ah! The pleasure I had transcribing passages for interviews recorded on cassette tape! I feel a blog coming up on the importance of listening.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Personal log Star Date 2012.6

We took the plunge and bought a camper van (posh name: motorhome or motor caravan). Will now have to consider joining the Caravan Club and buying matching sweaters. Ah! When I think of the hours to come comparing MPG, van layouts, awnings, fridge size (size is everything with fridges), not to mention swivel cassette toilets.....

Here she is. Yes, SHE. The Swift Bolero 600EK Compact 2.3 Fiat Ducato. Our own shuttlecraft.

Compulsory languages at KS2

The Telegraph, which seems to have some leaked information on the curriculum review, reports that, as widely predicted, the teaching of a modern language will be compulsory for all pupils from the age of seven. It will be recommended that children focus on one language and that schools may choose from ancient languages too. Look out for future announcements about compulsory languages at KS4.

What will be needed to make this work, given that existing provision for primary MFL has been, at best, a partial success?

Firstly, schools will need to allocate enough time. This will mean at leat two sessions per week, as it is well known that teaching a language is like, as Eric Hawkins aptly put it, "gardening in a gale" (the gale being English). Where will the time come from? What other things will not be done?

Secondly, who will deliver the skilled teaching required? It is reported that no new money will be allocated for this policy and, as I understand it, we have already seen some decline in provision in recent months as money for primary MFL training has dried up.

How will consistency across schools be assured? Will there be a national framework? What happens when a secondary school has umpteen feeder primaries who are providing inconsistent teaching? It remains hard to foresee a time when the Y7 teacher will be able to assume a specific level of acquired competence.

It is reported that some written skill will be expected by the end of Y6. This will represent a significant change and require a good deal more time.

The question also needs to be asked whether primary academies and free schools will have to teach languages. Presumably not, though the market and parental demand may insist on it.

Expectations need to be managed on this. If we just expect primary MFL to enthuse children for languages, provide useful literacy skills, improve their intercultural understanding, improve their communication skills, then fine, this may be worthwhile, although it will have to be at the expense of something else (unless we lengthen the school day).

On the other hand, if we expect compulsory KS2 languages to produce better results at KS3 and beyond, more linguists for the nation, then we shall be disappointed.

Primary schools are not prep schools. The latter achieve a lot in languages, but they have more time, a socially selective intake and teachers with more skills in MFL.

For a (cautiously) more optimistic view see Clare Seccombe's blog

Wednesday, 6 June 2012 updates

I'm very pleased with the number of subscribers to the site and, even though I say it myself, there are an awful lot of resources for a small annual subscription. Blatant advertising plug over. Or is it?

I've been busy making some new resources in the last couple of weeks.

Jan from mflresources linked an interesting story about a teacher who was suspended in Edmonton, Canada, for refusing to follow his school's marking policy. Too many zeros apparently. I have written a version of it in French with some exercises. On the education theme I've also put together some material on le redoublement. The French get children to repeat a year far more often than any other nation, with apparently few benefits in terms of academic performance (if we are to trust PISA on the matter). French teachers are apparently wanting to move away from repeating years to more individual, tailored work with struggling pupils. Sounds like the way to go.

Also in the A-level section I've produced something on space exploration and the new wave of French cinema. The latter is to support some work I intend to do with my AS group after study leave. Good excuse to watch a couple of seminal movies: Les 400 Coups and A Bout de Souffle.

For grammar and vocab practice I've done sheets on the passive, using infinitives, negatives, adverbs and time expressions.

Do take a peek!

Friday, 1 June 2012

So what's afoot in the French education system?

I enjoy keeping up to date to some extent with the education world in France thanks to Philippe Watrelot's informative blog in which he summarises recent events as reported by the French press (see the blog roll to the right).

It looks like France will be abandoning Saturday morning school (it's already gone in many regions anyway). The new minister Vincent Peillon looks happy to go along with the results of a previous consultation which favoured the week of "neuf demi-journées". Why not ten, you ask? Fair question. It seems that because the school day is so long, it is still felt that a half day on Wednesday is desirable. The obvious question is: why not shorten the day and have five full days as we do in the UK?

Monsieur Peillon is doing some rapid recruiting of new primary school teachers and assistants in order to cope with rising cohorts and to stick to an election promise. Primary education is the priority and this is surely right. Reminds me of Blair's policy from 1997.

A curious idea which has been put forward by the ministry is that retired teachers should be made available to advise new recruits to the profession. Philippe Watrelot's analysis is apt:

Pour ma part, je voudrais poser ici cinq points qui, selon moi, limitent la portée de ce dispositif proposé par Peillon :
- tout comme “enseigner”, "former" est un métier qui s'apprend (et qui ne s'improvise pas dans l'urgence). L’expérience ne suffit pas à faire une expertise.
- ce qui est important pour éviter les routines, c'est d'offrir la possibilité d'avoir plusieurs référents et pas un seul qui, aussi bon soit-il, conduira à une imitation ou à une opposition.
- pour pouvoir se former, il faut surtout du temps ! Du temps pour ne pas être dans l'urgence, avoir du recul...
- tout autant que des enseignants expérimentés, ce dont ont besoin les stagiaires c'est d'échanger avec leurs pairs, leurs semblables qui vivent les mêmes difficultés qu'eux et qui leur permettent de relativiser.
- enfin, pas sûr que des retraités aient envie de “remettre ça” et de retourner dans leurs établissements !

I've never heard that idea put forward in the UK and it should be given short shrift in France.

Interesting to note that the allocation de rentrée scolaire is to rise by 25%. I've often thought this benefit (given to all parents at the start of the new academic year) is a good idea, although it is true that expenses on books and materials are a bit higher in France than in Britain. On the other hand, our parents have to shell out for uniforms of dubious worth. It has sometimes struck me that more fuss is made about the rentrée in France than "back to school" in British stores.

And to finish.... a survey has been carried out about the happiness of French schoolchildren. Here is Philippe's résumé: (my emphasis)

Dans ce sondage, la grande majorité des parents d’élèves (85 %), du public comme du privé, affirment que leurs enfants sont plutôt heureux d’aller à l’école. Mais il faut nuancer : seuls 21 % des parents estiment que leurs enfants sont « tout à fait heureux », et 64 % « plutôt heureux » . Et ce sentiment décroît aussi avec l’âge : un collégien sur cinq et un lycéen sur quatre ne sont pas heureux en classe. On note aussi que le "plaisir d'apprendre" s'érode avec l'âge.Ce qui démotive, c'est aussi la peur de l'échec. 79 % des parents sont d’accord pour dire que beaucoup de compétences des élèves ne sont pas suffisamment évaluées et valorisées. 60 % d’entre eux pensent aussi que l’enseignement décourage les élèves en soulignant leurs faiblesses au lieu de valoriser leurs points forts, et 67 % estiment que la peur de l’échec les paralyse. Une refonte générale du système s’avère nécessaire pour la majorité d’entre eux : 57 % estiment également que les méthodes pédagogiques sont dépassées et les journées scolaires trop chargées.

I wonder what the results would be of a similar poll in Britain? There have been surveys suggesting British are generally among the least happy in Europe, but I have seen nothing specific on happiness in school. Best guess: we try harder to focus on happiness in UK schools and more children would say they like school.

Qu'en pensez-vous?