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Stefania Caddick-Adams: Is Mr Gove lost for words about languages in the primary curriculum?

Stefania Caddick-Adams is a secondary school languages teacher and primary languages trainer based in Oxfrodshire.

Encouraging and enabling classroom teachers to take the up the baton and teach languages to their classes has been four years of blood, sweat and tears.  And I do sympathise with these first class pedagogical practitioners, their reluctance.  I know how I would feel if someone told me I’d have to teach “A” level Maths, and that pretty much explains that rabbit in the headlights stare, the precursor to the recurring dream where you turn up for an exam you have forgotten to study for.

That is how lots of primary teachers felt when the last government introduced the idea of delivering a language curriculum, propelled out of their comfort zone and impelled into a nightmare scenario for many,  that one where their poor pronunciation and subject knowledge fraudulence will be found out – by the children.  They felt unskilled, overwhelmed and pushed around.  Again.

Many saw this as “just another initiative”, and it is sad to say, but it seems they were right, with the announcement earlier this month that Mr Gove has dismissed the Rose report completely.  The most irritating thing is that he has not explained why, nor has he sought to inform us what he will be doing, nor do we know who is advising him, nor are we given a time frame to expect the results of his findings.

He says:

“One of the biggest tragedies in state education over the last ten years has been this huge drop in French and German, Italian and Spanish”. 

He also says:

“Most parents would rather their children had a traditional education, with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England, the great works of literature, proper mental arithmetic, algebra by the age of 11, modern foreign languages. That’s the best training of the mind and that’s how children will be able to compete.” 

What an untenable juxtaposition this is with his sweeping dismissal, then, of the Rose review and all that that means for languages in the primary curriculum.

The statutory teaching of primary modern foreign languages was due to launch in September 2011, and untold sums have been spent on this initiative already.  CILT, the national centre for languages, has national trainers who deliver conferences, provide advice, resources and training for which the primary school pays in the guise of Continual Professional Development, Links into Languages (which replaces regional Comenius centres), and the Local Authority with one primary languages consultant per county.

Primary schools themselves have invested heavily in this scheme both financially and in terms of the time spent to train, plan and implement.  Teachers worry about everything in the other twelve areas of the curriculum they are required to teach, so primary languages on top of that for many was a bridge too far, and God forbid in my school visits I mention the “A” word (assessment).  The school would suddenly develop a leak, Legionnaires Disease, or rat infestation, evacuated pronto, with a firm hand in the small of my back propelling me to my car.

The truth of it is that primary languages are a joy for the children even when they are taught by a non-specialist, but taught with enthusiasm, with a strong focus on enjoyment, engagement and fun.  This is a subject which moulds itself into what children love most – movement, song, dance, games, challenge, team work... the list is endless but I wonder when the last time was that Mr Gove watched a primary languages lesson?

We have reached the point where 80% of primary schools are teaching a modern foreign language (CILT).  What we don’t know is in what manner, for how long, with what evidence of progression and so on, but there was time enough to sort these elements out because nobody said it was a fait accompli, but most definitely a work in progress.

What irks me more than anything is the lack of information regarding who is advising Mr Gove about all this.  Is it a bunch of celebrities who have had a blink-and–you-miss-it tour of the primary classroom?  What a slap in the face it is for the profession to be usurped so blatantly by someone who has written a book or two, had their own TV show or whatever the criteria is for helping advise on the new curriculum (secondary, that is and primary maybe, but I don’t know because no one has told me yet).

The Rose review was written at the coal face, that is to say, the real experts were consulted in a meaningful way.  It wasn’t dreamed up by people famous for being in the public eye, but by hard grafters working day after day behind closed doors for the benefit of your children. 

Tell me who is in your new think-tank, Mr Gove, and give me some confidence in your approach.  Let us, the teaching profession, be a part of your exploration.  Get specific about your ideas, it’s no good saying “I’m a fan of this or that”.  Give us the details, you must have thought this through.

If you think Modern Foreign Languages are such a great idea, you have to begin to enthuse the children early.  We are lagging behind the rest of the world and always have, when it comes to language learning.  We need a new approach, a new curriculum and a new way to engage young linguists.  Hang your ‘courage’ out there and tell us what you plan to do.


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