You are here Nick's Blog A modest proposal for primary education in the Asian century

A modest proposal for primary education in the Asian century

From September 2014, primary schools will have to teach a foreign language to pupils in key stage 2 (7–11 year olds). Many already teach foreign languages, in part because of the last Labour government’s decision to introduce an entitlement to modern language teaching for primary school children aged 7+ by 2010. The current government intends (as the former one did, in its dying days) to put languages on a more secure footing, in the new national curriculum.

On the face of it, this is a good thing. Yet surveys show that the vast majority of primary schools (90 per cent) only offer teaching in French, with a much smaller proportion offering Spanish (25 per cent) and a tiny proportion Mandarin or Arabic. Unusually, things are not much better in independent prep schools: French dominates there too, with Latin and Ancient Greek introduced in the later primary years.

Now French is a lovely language but it is in decline around the world. In contrast, there are over 350 million Spanish speakers worldwide and nearly 1 billion Mandarin speakers. Unsurprisingly, therefore, a growing number of parents want their children to learn these languages – those of the new world order, not the old.

In the US, Mandarin immersion schools are spreading fast and the growth of Latino populations in southern and western states is fast making Spanish Uncle Sam’s second language.

In the UK, progress is much slower. The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust has led the way in Sino–UK partnerships between schools, and Michael Gove has signed a deal to bring 1,000 Mandarin teachers to the UK. But these teachers will be deployed in secondary schools, not the 17,000 state primary schools that serve 4 million children in England. And of the 1,000 teachers, only 150 will be fully qualified to teach GCSEs.

We need a step-change in modern foreign language teaching in primary schools. To begin with, we should introduce tuition in key stage 1, not wait until children are 7 years old. This is what Ofsted inspectors had to say about primary schools that already do this:

‘A few of the schools visited had introduced a language in Key Stage 1 or the Reception class. This often resulted in a very strong ethos for language learning and intercultural awareness within the school. Very young pupils talked about how they loved learning new words and phrases and the games and songs associated with them.’

That sounds good to me.

But to really make a difference we need thousands of native Spanish and Mandarin-speaking teachers to come to the UK. We should broker partnerships with the Chinese and Spanish governments to bring a cohort of such qualified teachers to our primary schools, preceded by a short training course to equip them for teaching in the UK. At the same time, we need to train up a new generation of modern foreign language teachers ourselves. We predominantly teach French in schools because that is the language our teachers themselves learnt at school – there is no other reason for it.

In other public services, we draw in migrants as specialists when we need them. Indeed, schools have long relied on supply teachers from the Commonwealth. So why not introduce a major new recruitment and training programme to transform modern language teaching in our primary schools?

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3 Responses to A modest proposal for primary education in the Asian century

  1. William says:

    Agreed. I’ve long believed that teaching French first puts young people off languages. Spanish is more regular in many ways, especially in pronunciation. It also provides a good point from which to learn Portuguese, Italian, French and Latin.
    We may want to think about the distinction between European and American Spanish. In German schools they teach the particular aspects of British, American and ‘International’ English.
    The British Council has done some work on getting Mandarin into schools, but it needs to be built on.

  2. Gary says:

    “We predominantly teach French in schools because that is the language our teachers themselves learnt at school – there is no other reason for it.”
    There are lots of good reasons for learning French. France is a large and fascinating country that’s our nearest neighbour in continental Europe. Millions of Brits visit France every year – by air, by sea, by Eurostar and by road. My enjoyment of visiting France would be much reduced if I hadn’t learnt basic French at school. French is still very much a world language, and anyone who travels in francophone Africa, for example, as I have, is at a considerable advantage if they can speak French.

    Using phrases like “the Asian century” is not helpful in deciding how best to teach languages in schools. I’m all in favour of offering children of all ages as many opportunities as possible to learn various foreign languages, but we don’t have to deal with this issue on the basis of either/or. The key to enthusiastic learning, as ever, lies with children’s motivation, and who are we to enforce learning of Mandarin or Spanish if a child is actually motivated to learn French or Italian? Surely we’re in the century of personalised learning, not the Asian century.

    What needs to happen at Primary school is to provide a curriculum that enables children to enjoy “taster” sessions of lots of different languages, followed by opportunities both in school and out to follow through with their interest in learning whichever language most appeals to them. Children always learn better and learn faster when their interest is engaged and they are motivated to learn, no matter what adults say is “good” for them, or “good for Britain” – be it learning a foreign language or any other subject.

  3. To begin with, the author should make it clearer that his proposals can relate only to England, as schools policy is devolved. Secondly, why focus on importing language teachers rather than improving the skills of our existing primary-school teachers and those entering training? Why do we always feel we have to import people to remedy our skills shortages? It isn’t just about short-term economics, and if a culture of foreign language learning and use is promoted among our adult population as well as our children – including but not limited to the teaching profession – then it is arguable that the benefits will be more profound and sustainable.

    Finally, the main reason for teaching French is not that it was the language our teachers themselves learned at school. That may be the main cause, but there are plenty of other reasons for learning French. In fact, French – alongside Latin and Ancient Greek, which is why the private schools do it – provides an indispensable foundation for deepening one’s understanding and appreciation for English itself, as the contribution to English of those three languages has been so profound over hundreds of years.

    As I say, it’s not just about economics but about culture. And even if our focus were primarily economic, it seems bizarre to say the least that we would focus on languages spoken in parts of the world – Latin America and China – with which our trading relationships are still less important than with our close European neighbours. Alongside French, what about German, which is also by the way an excellent language to learn to deepen one’s understanding of English itself? Africa is also on the rise, where French is still widely spoken. And the emphasis on Spanish is arguably short-sighted, as it’s Brazil that is the motor of the Latin American economies, and they speak Portuguese, not Spanish. Who knows, in ten years’ time, people will be crying out for Portuguese-language skills?

    I think we need a broader vision of the purposes of language learning, and not a narrow and arguably ineffectual, short-term economic view.