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So what about compulsory MFL at KS4?

 This is a longer than usual post, so bear with me.

Apparently, according to Teresa Tinsley via Twitter, the recently leaked suggestion form a KS2 consultation document that languages would not be compulsory was a mistake. The DfE has, it seems, not yet reached a decision, though one factor weighing on their minds must be the possibility that the EBacc will cause numbers opting for languages to rise to the point where compulsion may not be necessary.

It may be wishful thinking to assume that the EBacc will cause sea-change in attitudes to MFL at KS4, though there is already clear evidence that the falling trend in GCSE entries has been reversed.

So what is at stake here?

Arguments in favour of compulsion go like this:

All other comparable countries to ours, except the USA, have languages in the core up to 16, and often beyond. To raise the status of a subject which is considered intrinsically important you should make it compulsory. If it's compulsory, it must be important, like maths, English and science. Thirdly, Britain is suffering in the job market because of our lack of second language skills. Fourthly (and surely most importantly), Britain's youngsters are missing out on all the life-enhancing opportunities which knowledge of foreign languages bring. It so happens that most of these young people who are missing out are working class, so raising the status of MFL fits with the government's social mobility agenda.

A useful insight into the government's view on social mobility is found in this recent comment on Laura McInerny's blog by government advisor Sam Freedman. I'll quote a fair chunk of it as it is quite revealing. He says that, with reference to our narrow common core at 16:

 ... one reason why we have such a large “opportunity gap” between rich and poor. Most middle class children study a wider range of academic subjects to 16 which ensures a wider range of post-16 choices and a greater liklihood (sic) of progression to university. Too often, especially over the past ten years, poorer children have been sent down routes at 13/14 that have diminished their options at 16 and subsequently. Our basic principle is that unless the national expectation for young people is broadly in line with what middle class parents expect of their offspring we have little hope of closing the opportunity gap. While we didn’t want to compel schools or young people to take a wider range of subjects when, in some cases, it may not be appropriate, we did want to challenge schools to ask questions about whether as many young people as possible were taking a wider range of academic courses that would give them more options post-16. (my emphasis)

It appears that the social mobility argument is fundamental in the DfE's thinking and this is to be applauded, though I am concerned that they are more concerned with comparisons with other nations than the intrinsic arguments for learning a second language.

Why do MFL teachers have mixed views about this issue?

Whilst it is to be deplored that MFL has become, to a considerable extent, the preserve of the middle classes, we also know that in the Labour years up to 2004 when languages became optional, many children were "disapplied" from exams, many children were not motivated and failed and many teachers had to deal with unmanageable classes. It has been claimed that Estelle Morris, Minister of Education at the time, made languages optional as one means to reduce truancy rates.

The government also remains concerned that MFL may not be suitable for all students, as Sam Freedman's last sentence indicates. They remain reluctant, as I would be, to return completely to the pre 2004 situation. EBacc was a clever way of using accountability measures to encourage schools to value MFL more highly. One would think, however, that if they were really totally focused on the social mobility agenda they would go the whole hog and make languages compulsory along with maths, English and science.

On balance I think they are right not to go the whole way with this exercise in social engineering. The other countries we may compare ourselves to are different in that their second language is nearly always English, which is a much easier sell to students who come into contact with our language through film, TV, music, the internet and often the world of work. English is the lingua franca, French, German and Spanish are not.

Schools should make sure, by high quality teaching, adequate timetabling and option systems, that all students, whatever their background, should have equal access to foreign language learning, but I do not believe we should force feed children who, often legitimately, do not see it as vital to their own needs after the age of 14.

It is often claimed that our youngsters are at a disadvantage because of their relatively low level of foreign language skills compared to some other nations, but let us not forget that they have one immense advantage: they speak English.


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