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?