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Compulsory MFL at KS2

Teresa Tinsley argues in her blog post that the government's policy on compulsory at KS2 is desirable, but that they should go further by reintroducing compulsory modern languages at KS4. The KS2 policy is currently open for consultation. Teresa writes:

"The DfE’s arguments for making languages compulsory in primary schools are spot on: more time for languages overall, equality of opportunities, consistency, and comparability with ‘high-performing’ education systems internationally."

I'd like to take each of those arguments one by one and suggest why the proposed policy will fail.

More time for languages: in reality primary schools will offer relatively little time each week to the type of second language learning which will generate real competence. Lack of skilled teachers will exacerbate this problem. For successful progress primaries would have to devote the same time and expertise as that offered in preparatory schools. The continued focus on maths, English and science along with the relatively short working day will make it impossible to deliver enough contact sessions to assure progress. The recent entitlement to MFL at KS2 has had mixed success and I know as a secondary practitioner that even pupils who have had reasonably regular MFL lessons in their primary lessons arrive with relatively few skills.

Equality of opportunities: as long as there is ample time offered at KS3, with the "little and often" principle respected, all pupils should have equal access to modern language learning. It is true that many, usually middle-class, children get good quality MFL teaching at prep schools. If primary schools could offer the same quality of teaching and the same amount of time then we would have even greater equality of access. I cannot see this happening for the reasons stated above.

Consistency: the entitlement policy in force until quite recently, and applied in the large majority of primary schools, did not provide consistency. To achieve consistency across schools a compulsory framework would have to be put in place, possibly with some kind of accredited assessment to assure standards are met. For consistency to be achieved high quality teaching by at least reasonably able linguists would be necessary. It is quite possible to set up a programme of study for all to follow, but the lack of qualified linguists at primary level means that the programme would be followed with mixed success.

Comparability with high performing education systems: it is commonly held that the earlier you start learning a language the better you will achieve in the long run. I would argue that this is true when the quality of input is good (as Teresa points out). The French have been pushing primary English quite strongly but with very mixed results; and this in a country where the learning of English should be quite highly valued and where there is a reasonable amount of contact with English through popular culture, notably music. The fact remains that quality of teaching and amount of time are crucial. In France primary teachers are often unable to communicate well in English, whilst in England the situation is even worse. In other "high-performing jurisdictions" such as Finland, Shanghai and Singapore, the motivation to learn English is much higher than the motivation to learn another language here.

I remain a sceptic on primary MFL. Unless politicians really follow through their fine words and policies with real commitment and resources we, as keen linguists, will remain frustrated. They will not do this because, ultimately, they do not believe in second language learning passionately enough. They are, alas, the product of their country's culture.

Do you believe that, in ten years from now, all 9 year-olds will be doing high quality French, Spanish or German lessons at least three times a week?


  1. A particular success in early language learning seems to be what is happening in Spain at the moment with the bilingual schools movement. Children from the age of 3 do nearly half of their subjects in the foreign language, in other words English. There is a big commitment to specialist staff with strong language skills, and a good use of foreign language assistants to complement them. Our partner school is a bilingual primary school in Madrid. The standard of English written by their 11 year olds is astounding. Taking the CLIL-style approach would get over the time issue, which admittedly is a significant problem, but of course it requires confident and specialist teachers. And therein lies the main problem. For consistency of approach we need consistency of skills. This is going to be almost impossible to achieve if the government is not prepared to make the necessary financial investment. And they have already said that there will be no money available. I am desperate for primary languages to succeed. I have invested 6 years of my career in it, and have seen first hand just how thrilling and successful it can be. CfBT, ALL etc want it to succeed as well. But there are so many things to battle against that it is going to be a long, hard struggle.


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