Teaching and Learning Modern Foreign Languages in the United Kingdom – Limitations

Teaching and Learning Modern Foreign Languages in the United Kingdom – Limitations

IV. 1. Cultural and political limitations

“David Beckham’s decision to learn Spanish now he has signed to play for Real Madrid next season should help fire children’s interest in learning the language at school, a minister said today. The schools minister Stephen Twigg said Spain was England’s number one tourist destination and Spanish the second most important European language for business (…) He will be a very useful representative to young people about how it can be cool to learn Spanish.”

Even though the Government fails to promote languages using traditional political strategies, they certainly do think of alternative techniques, such as using one of their most eminent role models as a representative abroad, namely David Beckham, a professional football player. Pupils, and mostly boys, who are one of the target groups as far as raising achievement is concerned, are interested in football for the vast majority. Using a famous sport’s figure to give a positive idea of language is indeed a clever turn!

As the minister says, Spanish has recently gained an increased interest, as it is a very common holiday destination for many British people. However, France is still a traditional place to spend holidays, and the impact of this on linguistic skills is yet to be found.

The language that suffers the most from student disaffection is German, which many comprehensive schools do not offer any longer. School Z, for instance is phasing out the tuition of German, and only Years 9, 10 and 11 are still learning this language. Business companies have expressed their concern about German, as it is still placed in priority for business use. According to the Report of the Centre for Information on Language Teaching, published in November 2004, 46% of Britain’s non English speaking markets are in Germany, 45% are in France, 31% in Netherlands and 27% are in Spain. According to the same source, the top three languages causing barriers in efficient business trade are French, German and Spanish, which are the three main languages offered within British schools. Unfortunately, businesses then hire natives of the foreign language needed who are also fluent in English, to help them work with prospective European partners. The lack of proficiency shown by British people in Modern Foreign Languages is a hindrance to business, which to some extent is detrimental to the United Kingdom’s economy. There also seems to be some kind of stigma linked to languages.

“Learning other languages gives us insight into the people, cultures and traditions of other countries, and helps us to understand our own language and culture. Drawing on skills and expertise of those who speak community languages will promote citizenship and complement the Government’s broader work on the promotion of social cohesion” (Dfes: 2002: 12)

Although the United Kingdom has had a tradition of promoting their own culture around the world and has been involved in a huge number of other national communities, transmitting their ethos to the countries of the Empire and then the Commonwealth, the reciprocity of this cultural enrichment has appeared to be a complex process. Today, the United Kingdom is part of the European Union, but the number of Eurosceptics in the country is not decreasing. British newspapers, mainly the tabloids, participate in displaying a negative perception of the European Union. Many British people are unaware of the implications, the organisation, the institutions and the policies of the European Union. Ignorance leads to lack of interest, for the vast majority of the population. It is often claimed that Britons have few cultural links with Europe, and that they feel closer to the group of countries sometimes referred to as the ‘Anglosphere’. This community consists of English speaking countries such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, Canada and the United States. They share a common language and similar values, due to common historical links, that is to say most of these countries were once part of the British Empire. Moreover, although the British do not want to leave the European Union, recent polls have shown that the British population was against the introduction of the Euro and the European Constitution. As long as the United Kingdom does not feel that they genuinely belong to continental Europe, the poor attitude toward language learning is unlikely to change.

Mixed messages exist amongst the population in the United Kingdom concerning the perception of languages. Pupils in secondary schools do not show great enthusiasm for this school subject, as recent figures published in the Times Educational Supplement show: “in some cases dropout rates from GCSE language courses are extremely high – from 50% to 90%”(tes.co.uk). Pupils often do not see the point in learning a foreign language. English is spoken all around the world as a first, second or third language. Many countries use one language in their everyday life, but English is their official language. In holiday resorts, everything is made to accommodate tourists. Tour operators employ English speaking staff to avoid any difficulties for their customers.

However, a recent survey published by the Centre for Information on Language Teaching suggested that “over 75% of the general population think that a foreign language is important; and this figure increases to 90% amongst the 15 to 34 year olds”. If this figure is accurate, this means that pupils in Year 10 should, in their vast majority, choose a Modern Foreign Language as an option for their GCSE, which is not the case. At the beginning of Year 10, pupils are 15 years old. The Centre for Information on Language Teaching wants to promote languages in the United Kingdom, and the interpretation of these statistical figures appears to be very optimistic.

Modern Foreign Languages are not the easiest subject in the curriculum for pupils. When it is time for them to decide which option to select for their exams, they have the choice between art, drama, physical education, double manufacturing, cookery and textiles. In larger schools they might also have media, business studies, and as it is a requirement, Modern Foreign Languages are offered. Pupils cannot help but wonder in which subjects they will gain an A* to C, which is the pass rate. It is a very difficult choice to make for a 14 year old teenager.

Often, the attitude about languages that surrounds them is not very encouraging. It is a challenging and very academic subject. Pupils also do not get language support from families. For generations, their families did not have to learn a language. Or, they were not very good at it because of the failure in the educational system in teaching Modern Foreign Languages adequately when schools turned into comprehensive schools.

The way English has been taught for decades has not made it easy for pupils to access a foreign language. Before the Literacy Hour was introduced at Key Stage 2, pupils were no longer taught grammar. Therefore, their Literacy Level was often quite low. Although languages can help tremendously to improve Literacy skills, pupils often feel overwhelmed by the vast amount of new grammatical knowledge they have to acquire. In School X, pupils in Year 10 and 11 left primary school before the English Key Stage 2 Strategy and the Literacy hour were introduced, or they had only been taught under the newly enforced system for a year. When I started teaching them, they did not know what a verb or a subject was, whether in English or in a Foreign Language. They were unable to identify nouns in a sentence. I taught German to some classes and French to other groups, and producing accurate sentences was completely impossible for the pupils. They could not identify any of their errors.

The difference with the pupils who started secondary school in the past three years is very impressive and significant. The knowledge acquired in primary school facilitates their understanding in languages, and Modern Foreign Languages lessons consolidate the learning previously acquired. This is a very good example of the cross-curricular benefits that pupils can obtain from learning a language. This also shows that the initiative made by the Government to amend the way English was taught has had a beneficial impact in several ways, as it has improved pupils’ skills in English grammar and this proficiency has facilitated the learning of Modern Foreign Languages.

Lower achievers cannot always overcome these difficulties in Modern Foreign Languages. During the first few weeks I taught at school X, pupils had to be sent to detention systematically for not producing homework. The Head of Foreign Languages, who had about twenty years of experience in teaching, explained that generally pupils in the United Kingdom have a very negative attitude towards homework, and that if it was not clearly specified that there would be appropriate sanctions if a piece of homework was not produced, pupils would not complete the activity set. To try to counteract these difficulties, various techniques are used by schools. Most schools require that parents sign a home-school agreement which states the responsibility of parents and pupils for their learning. It is not only a teacher’s responsibility to make sure pupils produce the work expected, as parents are required to be as supportive as possible. This agreement also stresses parents’ responsibility for their child’s behaviour in lessons. The home-school agreement is designed to involve parents in their child’s education as much as possible. However, this agreement endorses the lack of motivation on the part of the pupils, and so homework is perceived as a sanction rather than a requisite for steady progress.

The National Curriculum for Languages, in its Programme of Study, highlights the importance of training pupils in becoming independent learners, as does the National Key Stage 3 Strategy. In spite of this, pupils in school Z, are provided with a homework timetable to help them in organising their working time. Pupils in Years 7, 8 and 9 are given one piece of homework a fortnight for French when they are taught four lessons in two weeks. This homework should take up to thirty minutes to be completed. It seems that pupils are still not much challenged by this schedule of work.

IV. 2. Structural limitations

In the United Kingdom, a culture of competition and achievement is bred within society, but more specifically within schools. Pupils are encouraged to take part in sports fixtures, in drama production to represent the school in the area, or in talent shows.

This competitive spirit is also rendered in the numerous tests pupils take. Although the infamous “eleven plus” exam was officially suppressed with the birth of comprehensive schools in the 1960s, the current labour Government is considering introducing a new assessment at the end of Key Stage 2. This would have implications for Modern Foreign Languages to some extent. Although languages are not a compulsory feature yet in primary school, prior attainments are taken into account as soon as a child starts secondary school. The assessment that the Government wishes to set up implies that pupils leaving primary school with good results will be more likely to go on the rolls of schools that are on top of the list in the league table. Consequently, it can divide schools into categories, as was the case before the existence of comprehensive schools.

The figures analysed earlier show that the dropout rate in languages is already quite high, and it is even more so in schools which are towards the bottom of league table. “Allowing schoolchildren to drop languages at age 14 is reinforcing an existing class divide, warns a report from national education bodies. Schools with more pupils on free school meals are making languages optional. (…) In some, albeit isolated, cases dropout was extremely high. One school reported 40% of pupils in Year 11 not studying a language (last year’s option choices), rising to 90% for Year 10 (this year’s). This school also reported knock-on effects in Key Stage 3, with curriculum time being reduced for lower ability groups.” Indeed, the United Kingdom seems to move back towards an elitist educational system and this is not the only fact that leads to this conclusion.

Although legally the existence of an examination at the end of primary school should not be relevant to pupils’ enrolment in secondary school, selection still exists under cover of a different name. The Government appears to tolerate 10% of selection. In 1995, David Blunkett, made it extremely clear in his famous speech at the Labour party conference “read my lips: no selection”. Some grammar schools have high expectations of the potential candidates which will be part of their Year 7 pupils, and do not want to rely entirely on the assessments made by primary schools, and therefore have entry tests. Within the catchment area, they choose the local elite of children which will help them carry on to gain the excellent results at GCSE the school aims at, which are largely above national average results. Unfortunately, even some comprehensive schools use the same technique to hand-pick the best from the average pupils. This is known by British society and largely accepted, as many parents wish the best for their children.

However, in some less prosperous households in deprived areas, this competitive ethos is not found. Parents are more likely to lack a culture of self achievement and do not transmit these values to their children. Pupils are sent to comprehensive schools, where the expectations are lower, and it is in this kind of environment that the entitlement to languages at Key Stage 4 is at risk, as shown by the previous figures. To assess whether a school is within the boundaries of a less fortunate area, statisticians use the landmark of free school meals, which are only provided to families who live under the poverty threshold. Donald McLeod’s article on the TES website illustrates this concern: “In 2003, 70% of schools with more than 10% of pupils on free school meals had made languages optional, as opposed to 31% of the rest. Some 67% schools with half or fewer of their pupils gaining 5 A* to C’s at the GCSE had made languages optional, whereas only 38% of schools with higher attaining pupils had done so.”

Pupils in comprehensive schools are set targets in all their subjects. They are set end of year targets, end of Key Stage 3, and GCSE target grades. Besides, in school Z, the Modern Foreign Languages department sets targets for pupils’ levels of achievement for each half term.

Pupils after a few weeks in Year 7 take their CATS tests. The latter consists in a series of papers to assess their logic, Literacy and Numeracy skills. These tests are then used to provide predicted levels of achievement in Maths, English and Science. They are also used in some schools to set children in groups according to their ability, even in subjects like Modern Foreign Languages which are not directly related to these tests, although it seems to be assumed that a correlation can be drawn.

Then, in Year 9, they have SATS, in English, Maths and Science. Their performance is recorded but also used for further predicted grades and thanks to educational software provided by the Government like the ‘Autumn package’ or the ‘Panda package’, an estimate for their GCSE grades is made.

In Modern Foreign Languages, pupils sit end of year exams and end of unit tests in the four basic skills (reading, listening, writing and speaking) every half term. This is a common assessment pattern used in many schools in the United Kingdom. “While the amount of time and money soaked up in the process is an absolute scandal, the effect on our children and their view of what education is about is even more of a worry. Repetitive coaching, training and practice, along with a regime of mocks, trial tests and non-statutory pilots have put children on a treadmill of non-stop scrutiny. They’re the most tested children in the developed world and, as a consequence, subjected to intolerable pressure – and we wring our hands when they seem to lose interest and motivation, leaving education earlier than their European counterparts.”(education.guardian.co.uk). Indeed, it is fair to wonder whether pupils still can enjoy their time at school for the mere pleasure of learning something new and different. According to the same article, there is no evidence that the number of exams improves pupils’ performances.

Besides, teachers have to deliver 21 hour long lessons a week and have four periods dedicated to planning. However, these periods can also be used by the school to cover lessons when colleagues are absent. The numerous assessments imply further time pressure for teachers into delivering the curriculum and to get pupils thoroughly prepared. It also generates a loss in the time dedicated to planning, as most of the non contact time is taken up by marking various assessments.

School management evaluates the instruction provided by teachers according to the results that pupils receive in the various tests. Teachers are themselves set targets by their line manager, who is usually their Head of Department. These can be related to pupils’ performances at examinations. In the United Kingdom, teachers are not civil servants and their capability is related to pupils’ achievement; all of this is directly linked to their opportunities to be promoted and to evolve professionally.

IV.3. Limited resources

In the United Kingdom, comprehensive schools are mainly funded by grants provided the Local Education Authorities which themselves are subsidised by the Government. The way budgets are dispatched between schools depends largely on the system in place for allocating money, which varies according to the Local Education Authorities. Some factors which are taken into account are the number of pupils on roll in the school, the size of the Sixth Form, and the achievement of the school in terms of exam results.

In Local Education Authority A, the main parameter which determines the financial resources offered is the number of pupils following the post 16 curriculum. School Z is within the administration of this Authority. There are about 180 pupils in their Sixth Form. The money available does not enable the Head Teacher to improve the school according to his development plans. The Modern Foreign Languages has had the opportunity of acquiring new resources even if the department exam results are far below the national results; in 2005, only 9% of the pupils gained a grade A* to C in their GCSE exams. However, the budget is dispatched in order to make progress in the areas which need it the most. Although other departments also need to expand their resources, Modern Foreign Languages appeared to be a priority. The Head Teacher’s decision shows a deep interest for this area, which can only be praised considering the latest governmental choices, which relegate languages to an inferior position within the curriculum as it has become a mere entitlement. By making this decision of allocating an increased budget to Modern Foreign Languages, the Head Teacher of school Z makes a statement about his views on the subject. Additionally, the school tries to obtain additional funding by making a bid to gain a specialist status in engineering.

Schools in the United Kingdom have the opportunity to be granted further financial support by becoming specialist schools in varied fields such as sports, art, technology, information technology, business, or languages. Specialist languages schools, whilst making their bid, develop their department in order to show the existing resources and competences, and then, once the status is approved, they can expand the specific area, but also manage to bring general improvements to the school. For instance, Specialist Language School W managed to hire three Modern Foreign Languages assistants and each member of the department was provided with a laptop computer. The classrooms which had been recently refurbished were equipped with delta projectors, and a computer suite was built to fit their needs in Information and Communication Technology.

Their status, however, implies that Languages are compulsory for all pupils at Key Stage 4, and that pupils learn two languages at Key Stage 3. The department consists of eleven members of staff, and offers French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and Latin. Two new positions have been created since they successfully made their bid two years ago. Their achievement target for GCSE Modern Foreign Languages is 80% of pupils obtaining an A* to C grade. The school is located in a rather affluent area and the local community is extremely supportive.

In the Times Educational Supplement, 11 March 2005 issue, the efforts made by the Government to multiply the number of Specialist Languages are put forward: “Mr Twigg will announce today that the Government will spend £30m on increasing the number of specialist languages schools to 400 over the next five years. They will receive an extra £30,000 each year to help them to work with other schools. Schools with languages as their first or second specialism will get an additional £30 per pupil”.

It appears that the way schools are subsidised is directly linked with the potential developments of each school, and that unfortunately in some cases, it is increasingly difficult for a school to escape from the vicious circle of the impossibility to expand further. Schools suffer from lack of money, test results do not improve, which places the school at the bottom of the league table, and therefore the school is not attractive to prospective pupils, which implies that the school does not benefit from additional help because the number of pupils on roll in the sixth form does not increase.

Staffing is another issue that undermines Modern Foreign Languages departments. Indeed, there are not enough languages teachers in the United Kingdom at the present time, and the current numbers of pupils taking up languages in post 16 education does not show any sign a potential growth. Universities face numerous closures of languages faculties due to very few applicants. As an incentive, the Government offers the students starting a Post Graduate Certificate of Education a £6,000 grant. And the loans of these students are written off. After Newly Qualified Teachers complete successfully their first year, and obtain their full teaching status, they benefit from a ‘Golden Hello’, which is a £ 4,000 allowance.

In Northern England, schools are so short staffed in Modern Foreign Languages that further incentives have been thought of to attract new staff. In April 2005, the French magazine Marianne published an article explaining that Hull University offered to train Modern Foreign Languages teachers in three and a half months and give them a 5700 EUR allowance to do so. As part of their training they spend a few weeks in France. One cannot help but wonder about the quality of the training received in such a short time frame, and whether the knowledge of the newly qualified teachers will be adequate enough to enable them to be efficient classroom practitioners.

Stephen Twigg, school standards minister, announced in 2005 plans to work towards the deficit in languages teaching staff, which now also need to be trained for primary school teaching, as it is part of the Government’s new strategies for Languages. “More than £100 million is to be rushed into schools to help primary children learn foreign languages and halt the subject’s worrying decline in secondaries” (TES, 2005: 1). On the other hand, as the numbers of pupils learning a language at Key Stage 4 or Key Stage 5 has been on a steady decline since the implementation of the Government initiative to change languages to an entitlement, that is to say an option for GCSE rather than a foundation subject, the number of members of staff Modern Foreign Languages departments has decreased.

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