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Tackling the MFL teacher shortage

If you are teaching in England you may well be aware that the government intention is for nearly all young people to study a language as part of the Ebacc suite of qualifications. That means GCSE MFL for nearly all by 2020. The "nearly all" is not yet totally clear. Some are saying that about 90% of pupils will be expected to do a language to GCSE level. Bear in mind, however, that most schools are under no obligation to follow this directive and the evidence seems to be that many will not. Schools who do not enter enough pupils for the Ebacc have been told they cannot be graded "outstanding" by Ofsted, but even this powerful inducement may not have the desired effect.

To achieve the 90%-plus rate of GCSE entry schools will need to recruit many more language teachers. By one estimate this means 2000 new teachers. There is already a shortage of MFL staff, more noticeable in some areas than others. The government is aware of the issue. It knows that the supply of university linguists is small and that it may not be possible to recruit enough staff from the rest of the EU. Keep in mind that we already depend hugely on "imported" teachers to fill gaps in schools; things may be even trickier if free movement of labour across Europe is limited.

As an aside, if you want to know why the labour government decided to drop compulsory languages at GCSE, read what Estelle Morris, the education minister at the time, said.

Although not much reported, in March of this year the DfE introduced its scheme to attract more people to language teaching. Details are here. They have proposed what they call Teacher Subject Specialism Courses. They could have called their scheme "Make Do and Mend".

This is what they say:

"The purpose of this training is to improve the subject knowledge of non-specialist and returning teachers. It will increase the number of hours taught by offering school-led teacher subject specialism training opportunities. This training is delivered free of cost to participants. This includes: 

  • non-specialist teachers who could potentially teach a relevant subject in addition to their main subject; 
  • non-specialist teachers who are currently teaching a relevant subject either full-time or in addition to their specialist subject teachers looking to return to the profession;
  • language specialists (in the case of MFL) who aren’t currently teaching;
  • MFL language specialists (in the case of MFL who could potentially teach an additional language)."

In a separate guidance document for "lead schools" they say:

"The purpose of teacher subject specialism training for MFL is to provide school-led MFL subject specialism training to non-specialist teachers and MFL subject specialism training to specialist MFL teachers who are not currently teaching MFL and may need refresher training to enable a move back into an MFL teaching role may be looking to teach a new language in addition to their language specialism.

This will build capacity within the system to enable schools to address strategically workforce and deployment challenges to support delivery of the Ebacc and build the skills necessary to enable non-specialists to move into an MFL teaching role or up-skill non-specialists already undertaking an -MFL role. The priority target groups for secondary MFL are:
  • teachers not currently teaching MFL with post A level MFL qualifications teachers not currently teaching MFL with good A level MFL qualifications; 
  • teachers not teaching MFL who are native/near native speakers; 
  • non-specialist teachers currently teaching MFL in addition to their specialist subject; 
  • specialist MFL teachers who are not currently teaching MFL and who need refresher training to enable a move back into an MFL role; 
  • specialist MFL teachers who have the capacity to teach a new language in addition to their language specialism."
So the DfE is happy for teachers with an A-level in MFL to teach GCSE, to "upskill" existing non-specialists and to encourage specialist in one language to do another.

I wonder if the DfE is aware of the evidenced correlation between teacher subject knowledge and teaching quality (it is), as well as just how long it takes to develop skill in a language.

It is difficult to see how this initiative will produce enough properly skilled MFL teachers for the future. The best hope will be to increase further the number of native speakers. When MFL became compulsory in the 1990s I doubt that there were enough good teachers around, but at least there were more graduate linguists coming through the system.

We shall muddle through somehow, victims of a misconceived policy and poor forward planning. Pupils in less favoured areas will have to make do with well-meaning teachers who have trouble stringing sentences together, don't know enough words and cannot explain grammar. The problem does not just lie with MFL, of course. Maths and physics have been coping with under-skilled teachers for many years. That's another story.



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