So Michael Gove has nailed his colours to the mast and suggested at this week’s Conservative Party conference that foreign languages should be taught to children from age 5 (The Guardian, Sept 30).
"There is a slam-dunk case for extending foreign language teaching to children aged five.”
This announcement has generated a great deal of press over the weekend and delighted many. But those who work in modern foreign languages education might argue that this announcement is 18 months overdue.
Prior to the election in May 2010, in response to the Rose Review in 2008, a bill had been submitted to make primary languages statutory from September 2011. In preparation for statutory primary languages, local authorities, the Training and Development Agency for schools, CILT, the National Centre for Languages and other organisations including the British Council had developed a range of programmes for teaching staff to develop their skills to be able to offer modern foreign languages in primary schools. From specialist PGCEs to intensive training courses in France, Germany and Spain, teachers became confident, capable teachers of languages and pupils reaped the benefits.
Despite the ‘slam-dunk case’ for primary language learning, this bill was blocked when the coalition government came to power. As a result of this procrastination, languages were not statutory when the new term started in September this year. Years of planning, training and investment by schools, who had been preparing for the statutory requirement, were put on hold when the bill did not go through. School leadership teams that were pro-languages continued to invest in languages development but others, who adhere more closely to government policy, put the investment on hold and language teaching stuttered. As a result, language teaching was reduced or halted in many schools and uncertainty was rife.
Obviously there are other elements to the bill concerning the primary curriculum that the Coalition may not view so favourably, but why wait 18 months to revisit the foreign language element if Gove is so supportive?
Better late than never
Nevertheless, it is excellent news that our Education Secretary has voiced his support for early language learning. But what next? Will he invest in training and development of teachers, like the previous government? Will he move to introduce legislation that could have already been in place and ensured that all five-year-olds were learning a language now? Or will he expect his endorsement to be sufficient incentive for primary schools to invest in language learning?