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Should modern languages be made compulsory again at Key Stage 4?

Michael Gove stated that in the current review of the national curriculum consideration would be given to making a modern language compulsory, as it was a for a number of years up to 2004.

In reality, of course, not all pupils by any means studied a language up to 16 during that period. Thousands were "disapplied", which meant that they did not do a course, or else they did a very watered down language- related course of some kind.

Mr Gove would be wrong to reintroduce compulsion. This is why: firstly, there are very good pragmatic reasons for allowing children to drop languages at 14. Learning a language is hard, very hard. Many find it extremely unmotivating. Classes with unmotivated and less able children were (and would be again) difficult and fruitless. Teachers are not good enough to be able masses of unmotivated language learners. Discipline in schools would potentially decline and truancy may increase. (It is said that Estelle Morris, the minister who oversaw the change of policy in 2004, at least in part, decided to make languages optional at KS4 to reduce absenteeism.)

But there are also good curriculum reasons for keeping languages optional. Despite the pleas from language teachers and apologists for the learning of languages, the status of French, German and Spanish is not the same as the status of English in other countries. Many pupils do not see the value of learning a language and are unlikely to use it in later life to any significant extent. Arguments about broadening horizons and opening the mind will not wash with. Such pupils are likely to derive more benefit and enjoyment from studying other things.

By the way, I do not accept the argument that by making a subject compulsory, and by raising its status, you get students to do better at it.

Some argue that languages are becoming the preserve of the middle classes and that some pupils are being deprived of opportunities. There is some truth in this, but as long as languages remain an "entitlement" in schools, then brighter, motivated students will still able to profit from language learning. In addition, language teachers need to be better trained and to perform better in the classroom.

The current discussion of the curriculum is healthy. Why do we not take it further and be more radical? We worship at the temple of maths, just as we used to with Latin, when the vast majority of us use little beyond simple arithemtic, fractions and percentages. Why is maths compulsory to age 16? Religious education continues to be a compulsory lesson. This is an absurd anachronism, as is the "compulsory" daily act of worship. Let's be honest about that one and acknowledge we live in a secular society.

So, just for fun, here is my national curriculum:

KS3 (11-14). Compulsory English, maths, PE, geography, history, science, design and technology, art,  music, a modern language (just one), ICT, PSHCE (within which religions, citizenship and ethics could be taught)

KS4 (14-16) Compulsory English, history, geography, science, PE, PSHCE.
                     Optional: maths, modern languages, design and technology, art, music, media, business, RE,
                     classics, ICT, drama + others

I would then broaden the curriculum post 16. I'm doubtful about the use of GCSEs.

We should raise the status of PSHCE. It needs more periods and it needs to be examined seriously. You will see that, like Mr Gove, I believe we should raise the status of humanities, though I am doubtful about including RE as an Ebac subject. We should question the value we place on mathematics.

Did I miss anything?

The government has a detailed online consultation form about curriculum reform which can be found here.


  1. Things are a little different here in Ireland. All pupils must study Irish, English, mathematics and a 'European language' typically French) as well as three or four other subjects such as history, geography, science etc. up to the age of eighteen.
    It is one of the givens of Irish education that a European language is essential to a well-rounded education; debate centres instead on whether or not Irish, grammatically complex and spoken as a first language by fewer than 5,000 people, should be compulsory.

    I incline towards the notion that there should be a compulsory foreign language for all, and that language should be French - not enough people know the songs of Jacques brel.

  2. Ha ha! I wonder how well the teaching of a foreign language goes down with less able pupils in Ireland. But I take your point and understand the reasoning.

  3. I agree entirely. I think the situation with the new Ebac is the best situation we can find ourselves in. I firmly believe that everyone can learn any language, and everyone is proof of that every day in speaking their mother tongue. However, for some pupils, given the time constraints of learning a language in school it is hard for any pupil and for some, just too hard.
    Languages have come a long way over the last few years - in spite of falling numbers at GCSE - with the enjoyment aspect. Primary languages is showing itself to be a big help, and not needing to ensure preparation for GCSE at KS3 is a help with lower ability pupils as it eases the pressure. To go back to compulsion would be a retrograde step as those who really struggle / just don't enjoy it would bring down those who are trying their hardest.

  4. The feedback I hear from our local primaries is positive, but they can only spend at most an hour a week, often just half an hour. It seems to create enthusiasm, however, and our more anxious pupils are the ones who haven't done any French before.

    In the early days of the latest primary initiative it was suggested that we might eventually be able to build on previous progress achieved at primary school and do GCSE earlier. This has not been the case and will not be.

    I doubt if Gove will go for compulsion at KS4, but it is all in review, so we shall see.


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