When the British Council announced they wanted to commission a piece of research on which languages the UK needs most and why, I was delighted. But I could also see the pitfalls. One the one hand, I could see that a balanced and considered analysis would help to stimulate and inform a debate which is all too often dominated by personal opinion and value judgements. On the other hand, producing a list of just 10 languages seemed destined to upset someone. I had no wish to be the cause of a diplomatic incident. And asking which languages the UK needs is not the same as saying which languages schools should teach or which languages people should learn. These questions require consideration of a wider range of factors and I respect that. So when I joined forces with my colleague Kate Board to carry out the work we were clear that the report needed to be based on a systematic and dispassionate review of the evidence. It needed to take into account a balanced range of factors, both economic and cultural. Not only which languages might be needed for future business success, or the languages of countries where cultural links are already strong but, given the power of language learning to build trust, where there was the greatest need to strengthen relationships and mend fences.We were also seeking balance in terms of the sources of evidence we used. We wanted not only to take into account the views of government and business, but also the wants and needs of the British public. We achieved this by looking at the most popular tourist destinations for Britons, and the availability of beginners language courses for adults, which are so responsive to popular demand.
November 20th, 2013 by Teresa Tinsley
September 24th, 2013 by Teresa Tinsley
I’ve been working with Speak to the Future to develop their new 1000 words campaign. The message is that everyone can and should acquire at least 1000 words in another language. The idea is that the concept of 1000 words provides a way of unifying messages and getting through to a wider public. Where ‘learning to speak another language’ sounds daunting, 1000 words is something everyone can aspire to. Whilst ‘A2 on the Common European Framework’ means something specific to the specialists, it’s hardly a hook for a marketing campaign. But the idea of 1000 words is also flexible – it can be interpreted in different ways to suit different circumstances, and it lends itself to creativity.
The key message is that languages are for everyone. There is a huge need to democratise language learning, to change attitudes and practices which all too often see it as something for the privileged and academic, but not so relevant for the average person. Yet when I interviewed businesses for the British Academy’s State of the Nation report, it was clear that language skills were required and valued at all levels in the workforce. In fact, in the case of B&Q, which works closely with their French sister company Castorama to pool buying power, Services and Training Manager Mark Giles told me that ‘while senior managers [in Castrorama] might speak good English, deeper in the organisation this is not the case’. They are therefore training staff in French to bridge the communication gap.
We need to draw in all the support we can get – from headteachers, businesses, cultural organisations and influential individuals – to put awareness of the value of languages on the same level that STEM subjects enjoy. A number of actions are now coming together to make this start to seem like a real possibility. It’s fantastic that the Guardian has now teamed up with the British Academy to promote the case for language learning. And I’m very encouraged that organisations such as the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce are engaging with the new Born Global research project to provide evidence for rethinking policies on language learning in the light of how languages are actually used in the workplace. The British Council too is putting its weight behind language learning in the UK with a range of activities coming up during its forthcoming International Education Week.
So, as Speak to the Future Campaign Director Bernardette Holmes memorably said at the launch of the Born Global project, it is not only a question of Obama’s ‘Yes, we can’ . We must go further and be clear also that ‘we must’ and ‘we will’.
So please join the 1000 words campaign – there is a sign up form on the Speak to the Future website at http://www.speaktothefuture.org/1000-words-challenge/#logo
August 22nd, 2013 by Teresa Tinsley
Figures released today show that after a decade of decline, the number of students taking GCSEs in French, German and Spanish has risen spectacularly by 17%.
This is surely good news for languages – and of course for the students concerned – so why am I not jumping for joy?
We’re clearly seeing the impact of the EBacc – the policy announced at the end of 2010 to get more students into ‘traditional’ subjects such as languages – history and geography, also EBacc subjects, have also seen rises of 17% and 19% respectively. The 2011 Language Trends survey already showed how around 40% of schools reacted by making languages compulsory for some pupils or modifying option blocks to guide more pupils into continuing with a language. We’re seeing the results of those option choices now. But the impact has been on a very small number of pupils – the proportion of the cohort sitting a GCSE in a language has gone up just 3 percentage points, from 41% to 44%.
Now, 3 percentage points is maybe not too bad, if that level of increase can be maintained year on year. But will the EBacc keep delivering in future years? I don’t think so. Teachers responding to the latest Trends survey said that where their schools had made changes to enable more students to achieve the EBacc, they weren’t intending to make more changes to get ever greater numbers doing so. And, let’s remember, the EBacc has changed since it was first announced. It’s now just one performance measure among many, it won’t have the status intended when it was first launched and there is a real possibility that some schools will reverse the measures they so eagerly put into place two years ago.
So while the EBacc may have delivered some good news today for the Education Secretary, it’s not going to take us much further.
Another reason why I’m not jumping for joy is that last week’s A level entry figures for languages are still fresh in my mind. Some commentators today seem to be as consistent in their assessment of what’s going on in languages as Glenda Slagg – bemoaning things one minute and rejoicing the next. The A level figures were horrendous, yet it’s at that level – when learners start to become independent users of the language – that the benefits of language learning really start to be felt. The A level entry figures reflect very badly on the way languages GCSEs prepare students for higher level study. I would be very surprised if manipulating more students into taking GCSEs will spill over into increased take up for A level.
But the main reason I’m not ecstatic today is the other 56%. I’m sad and frustrated that there is no sign of any policy to enable the majority of teenagers to have an enjoyable and productive experience of language learning at school. This is something that the campaign for languages Speak to the Future will be taking up in the autumn, so watch this space!
August 15th, 2013 by Teresa Tinsley
Today’s A level results should make the government think very hard about what is happening to languages in schools. French and German have fallen by 10% and 11% respectively, following on from 5% and 7% declines last year. This is a massive rate of attrition and the impact in schools – on the viability of groups, on teacher recruitment, on expertise in teaching languages to a high level – must be immense. I don’t even want to think about the impact on university departments.
The government has hailed the increase in ‘facilitating subjects’ as a policy triumph, but the truth is that STEM subject are growing in popularity at the expense of languages. This can’t be right: linguists are needed in the global economy alongside scientists, and technical knowledge falls flat if you can’t communicate it.
There are some winners in this year’s figures. Spanish is still increasing in numbers, and some of the smaller entry languages – Russian, Arabic, Turkish, Farsi (Persian) and Portuguese – are looking healthy. But these increases are not enough to compensate for the declines in French and German (the languages employers most need) and even Chinese has declined this year. Overall, modern language subjects have declined by 5% relative to 2012 and now represent only 3.8% of all A level entries. That means that only one pupil out of every class of 26 is now learning a language beyond a basic level. No wonder 64% of employers say they are dissatisfied with school leavers’ language skills – more than for any other skill area.
Next week, there will be better news for languages. GCSE results will show the impact of the EBacc for the first time and we may see as much as a 10% increase in entries for language subjects. But I am very sceptical about whether this increase will be carried over to A level. Pupils funnelled into languages GCSEs to tick performance measure boxes don’t suddenly become enthusiastic linguists, and there is too big a gulf between GCSE and A level for the transition to be made easily.
The new national curriculum and reformed subject content for GCSE offer real hope for bridging that gap in future, but only if schools take on board the need to make provision for improved standards in languages from the bottom up. That means secondary schools putting in place better arrangements for languages from Year 7 – improving timetabling, enriching the languages curriculum, providing opportunities for pupils to use the language outside the classroom, and proper CPD for teachers. Primary schools will need to do their bit too, but that’s another story.
April 29th, 2013 by Teresa Tinsley
Here is, in essence, what I have responded to the DfE KS4 accountability consultation.
We urgently need to improve the situation for languages in schools and it is vital that the government takes into account specific issues which affect language learning in the national curriculum, in order to avoid creating further ‘perverse incentives’ with a negative effect on language take up.
The introduction of a foreign language into the KS2 curriculum creates 2 interrelated issues which affect the way in which languages can be used within the accountability framework at KS4. These are a) whether pupils will be able to continue with the same language when they move from KS2 to KS3, and b) the need to encourage a wider range of languages given that around 95% of language teaching in primary schools is in either French or Spanish.
I argue that schools cannot be held accountable unless starting points as well as finishing points are measured and that we need a new graded assessment system for languages in order to provide this.
Impact on lesser taught languages
The accountability arrangements proposed may have the effect of narrowing the range of languages studied.This is because a value added measure based on performance at GCSE in relation to prior performance in English and Maths at KS2 will not take into account the fact that some pupils will be starting a new language in Year 7 and others at the beginning of their GCSE course, while some pupils will have had 9 years’ tuition in the same language. Lesser taught languages such as Arabic, Russian or Mandarin are often introduced only at KS4 but because they diverge more from English than Western European languages, they require more time to reach similar levels. A value-added measure based on English and Maths will not measure value added in a foreign language and there will inevitably be pressures on schools and students to avoid the risk of a poor grade by sticking to a language they have already learned rather than enriching or revitalising their language learning experience by starting a new one. German may also be affected since it is perceived as a ‘hard’ language at GCSE and there is very little German teaching in primary schools.
Shortcomings of GCSE languages as a tool for school accountability
I am concerned about the total reliance on GCSE results as a measure of performance. Teachers responding to the Language Trends survey are clear that the current assessment arrangements do not promote ‘deep understanding’ but rather reward superficial rote-learning. This means that the exam is not meaningful or credible to either learners or employers, but is seen merely as a box ticking exercise for school performance tables. Rather than preparing pupils for life in the global economy, this is creating a cycle of disenchantment with language learning.
Teachers also say that the GCSE exam advantages pupils who are generally high attaining, but is less accessible for lower ability pupils within the curriculum time available. Many schools have now made a language compulsory for their top sets, but lower attaining pupils are encouraged to take other subjects in which they will be more successful.
Teachers are also concerned about comparability between languages at GCSE, because more time is needed to acquire the same level in languages with non Roman scripts or those which have little vocabulary in common with English (particularly when these are only started in Year 10).
I do not believe therefore that the GCSE exam provides a suitable tool for measuring schools’ performance in providing high quality, effective language teaching which enables pupils to progress in language learning.
There is an urgent need for an easily comprehensible but credible system of assessment which shows what competences learners have acquired and what they can do in the foreign language. GCSE does not provide this.
A graded system of language tests, similar to that used for music, based on the Common European Framework of Reference or on the Languages Ladder, would provide a much better tool for measuring both pupil progression in language learning and for holding schools accountable. And it would be likely to encourage more pupils to study a language at KS4 and to enable a wider range of languages to be taught.
Rather than setting a bar at a particular level like GCSE, such a system would provide flexibility in measuring progress, whether pupils continue with the same language from KS2, or pick up a new one in Year 7 or Year 10. It would also provide accreditation for those pupils who give up a language at the end of KS3 (whether to start a new one or to focus on other subjects) or who for a variety of reasons do not reach the high standard now being proposed for the new GCSE. It would also potentially provide the means of measuring progress between KS2 and KS4, for students who take the same language, encouraging schools to build on what has been learnt rather than ‘starting from scratch’ as so often happens.
Impact on less able students
The current system disadvantages less able pupils by being a test of short term memory rather than measuring genuine learning. Graded qualifications, mapped against internationally-recognised standards, would provide a more meaningful, relevant and motivating way of reflecting pupil performance. They would allow pupils from across the educational spectrum to gain a language qualification.
Additional measures the government should publish
The EBacc has had some effect on uptake for languages amongst high attaining pupils and should be retained.
However the government should also publish measures of foreign language performance based on assessment against internationally-recognised standards. This would recognise the achievement of:
a) less able pupils who might otherwise drop languages
b) pupils taking up a new foreign language at the beginning of KS4
c) pupils giving up a language at the end of KS3
It could also provide the means for schools to measure the extent to which they have contributed to the development of pupils’ competences in languages they have contact with at home, since it has the potential to measure both ‘before’ and ‘after’.
A reformed and upgraded GCSE could be retained, within this system, as a premium qualification for higher attaining pupils or those who have been able to carry on with the same language for 9 years.
I do not believe this is a priority at this time, or that, based on the current structure of assessments, it would help the wider public to understand the extent to which schools are helping pupils to gain competence in a foreign language.
National sample tests
There is no need to develop national sample tests for languages, since the European Survey on Language Competences (developed by an English lead partner) already exists. The results of the first survey highlighted the failings of the GCSE exam as a reliable measure of language competence and the need to map assessment systems against more rigorous internationally accepted measures.
I strongly urge the government to participate in the next round of the European Survey, and meanwhile to reform assessment for languages as suggested in order to raise standards, improve pupil take up, and break the current cycle of disenchantment.