"The bleak picture was compounded by the publication last month of an OECD survey that showed that secondary school pupils in the UK spend less time studying languages than their counterparts anywhere else in the developed world. Only 7 per cent of the lesson time of 12 to 14 year-olds is allocated to languages, which is half the amount that they spend on sciences. This puts England joint bottom of a table of 39 countries, alongside Ireland and Estonia and behind Indonesia and Mexico."
Baroness Coussins (speaking in the House of Lords)
(Did she mean England or the UK?)
The new English Bacc will definitely give a boost to modern languages. This Wednesday the government will produce its first league table based on numbers of pupils achieving a good pass in maths, English, a science, a humanity and a modern language. It's pretty unfair, actually, producing such a "retrospective" league table (the English bacc was only made public last September so schools are being judged on criteria they had no idea about just weeks ago). Using league tables to get schools to alter their curriculum seems an odd way of going about things and I worry that schools in disadvantaged areas will look poorer because their pupils may not be best suited for learning traditional subjects. Does anyone else see the irony of a secretary of state for education claiming he wants heads and teachers to run the show, then setting up a league table system which strongly urges them in the direction of traditionalism? So much for localism. This is a classic example of top-downism.
That said, Baroness Coussins's reminder about curriculum time allocated to languages is important. It comes down to this: school leaders generally value languages a good way below maths, science and English. I could present a case (as did Simon Jenkins recently in The Guardian) about how we hugely overrate the importance of maths and science, as we used to with Latin, but at least they could allocate a reasonable amount of time to allow average pupils a chance of making serious progress. The common format of one hour lessons does nothing to help, since it reduces the number of contacts per week, but pupils, even bright ones, cannot make enough progress on one or two time slots per week.
At my school we offer four or five slots of 40 minutes a week for French. This is one reason, in my view, why our pupils do well. Little and often....
Thanks to Clare Seccombe for reminding us of Baroness Coussins's remarks.