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Compulsory languages in primary schools: does it work?

A quiet revolution happened in English primary schools last September, representing a historic curriculum change: language-learning was made compulsory for all children between seven and 11. Teresa Tinsley and Kathryn Board, who wrote the new Language Trends survey, examine the effect of the change.

Language learning is now compulsory in English primary schools

The revolution in language-learning in England didn't come from nowhere. Between 2002 and 2010, the number of primary schools teaching pupils a new language rose from about a quarter to nine out of ten, following a national training and development programme. Now, with language learning made a compulsory part of the curriculum, 99 per cent of schools responding to our national survey say they teach a language, and 12 per cent say they have just started in the current academic year. At last, we are seeing a new language become a normal part of children’s learning from the beginning of their primary education - while they are confident and curious - rather than a challenging new subject associated with the pressures of starting secondary school.

Two examples of what the new policy looks like in practice

For the first time, this year’s Language Trends survey included visits to schools, so the research was able to include working examples of how policy translates into practice. The two primary schools featured provide inspiring examples of how teaching languages, far from being an additional burden on schools, fits perfectly within their overall ethos and vision.

Learning a language can be woven into the broader curriculum

Spanish is the main language taught at Canning Street Primary School in Newcastle, which has a highly multilingual school population (85 per cent of pupils have English as an additional language). Language-learning is integrated with education for global citizenship, and forms an essential part of pupils’ developing cultural awareness and concern for others.

All pupils, from Reception (first year of primary school in England) to Year Six (sixth year of compulsory education), receive a 90-minute Spanish lesson every other week, taught by a specialist teacher. But far from being a separate subject on the timetable, the content links to the school’s thematic curriculum. Class teachers reinforce language and thematic links at different points throughout the week. Pupils have looked at themes such as World War I, football, animals and dreams - all through Spanish.

A new language puts all children on the same footing

The school’s international ethos runs deep: it employs three Comenius assistants and a Czech parent support worker, and is involved in an international science project with funding from the European programme 'Erasmus Plus'. Pupils took part in the international ‘Send my friend to school’ campaign by writing to MPs using the languages they speak at home. The school sees Spanish as a leveller that helps all children feel included. One senior member of staff remarked that ‘Children who may not speak much English can be as good as everyone else in Spanish’.

Learning one language has knock-on benefits for other communication skills

The other school featured in the report is Yeading Junior School in Hayes, Middlesex. This school also caters for a similarly high proportion of pupils with English as an additional language, and sees language-learning as an integral part of their educational mission: ‘It’s part of who we are. It’s part of our children’s success’.

The focus at Yeading is on language awareness and the acquisition of generic language skills, which is not only beneficial when learning the new language (in this case, French) but also English, home languages, and future languages the children will learn. It is an ethos that firmly promotes bilingualism as an asset: as one pupil put it, ‘the more languages you know, the brainier you are’. Language awareness permeates the school: in addition to the one hour per week in which all children learn French, every opportunity is taken to introduce children to other languages, including Latin and the languages spoken by teachers and pupils.

Primary schools can and do teach new languages well

For those sceptical of the quality of language teaching that can be provided by primary schools, these schools provide powerful evidence of how a rigorous experience of language learning can be firmly anchored within broader educational objectives.

So is everything rosy for primary languages? Unfortunately not. Our survey shows that in many schools, language learning is still a low priority. There has actually been a reduction in training opportunities for practising teachers, and a minority of schools still do not have staff with the right training to teach languages. Until the quality and consistency of teaching is developed across the country, secondary schools will not be able to capitalise on what pupils have learnt. This is now the challenge – but compulsory status has had an immediate impact, and many schools have responded by formalising or strengthening their provision. This momentum now needs to be maintained, to bring year-on-year improvements to language-learning in English schools.

Read the full Language Trends survey, published today. The research is based on an online survey completed by teachers in more than 500 state secondary schools, 600 state primary schools and 120 independent secondary schools across the country.


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