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

February 12th, 2021 by dayat No comments »

IV. 4 Limited choices

Since September 2004, Modern Foreign Languages are an entitlement, which means, as explained earlier, that schools must offer pupils the opportunity to study one language up to GCSE. However, in practice schools deal with this new governmental policy very differently from each other. Head Teachers of Comprehensive Schools have the possibility to implement the decision in varied ways, and for instance in Specialist Languages School the tuition of Modern Foreign Languages at Key Stage 4 is still compulsory. In School Z, where the number of options offered is limited, pupils who opt for textiles have to take a language. There are timetable constraints, which makes any other combination impossible. Pupils are therefore often resentful, as they feel that what should have been a choice has been imposed on them.

Some other Head Teachers promote the learning of a language and ensure that it is valued in the school and community, and so they manage to keep the number of candidates who decide to enter for a languages GCSE quite high. This is often the case in middle class catchment areas where the benefits of learning a language are understood and supported by families.

The schools that have suffered the most from this decision are Comprehensive Schools in more deprived areas, where there is no understanding of the resource that languages can be, especially to improve Literacy skills. Some schools even withdraw pupils who have Special Educational Needs from Languages lessons, in order to provide them with extra support in English. In school Z, the Literacy Co-ordinator agrees on the importance of offering children the possibility to gain from learning a language, and he has advised the Special Educational Needs co-ordinator to avoid removing them from lessons.

Pupils acquire transferable skills in Modern Foreign Languages, and this should be explained more thoroughly to the general public.

Schools often aim to raise achievement in terms of numbers, and in this concern the actual learning process is not taken into account. Modern Foreign Languages teachers sometimes have to face poor behaviour in lessons, due to the perception of the subject. This is in direct link with the impossibility to practice speaking and listening skills in some contexts, which implies that pupils will perform badly when they are assessed. Pupils are set according to ability in most schools, and the group which is labelled ‘bottom set’ is usually a mixture of low achievers and badly behaved pupils. However, this has also a negative impact on pupils’ self esteem. Very low predicted grades have a negative effect on their motivation.

Some Languages Schools, but some Comprehensive Schools as well, have decided to disregard the languages entitlement at Key Stage 4 by creating fast track sections in which pupils take their GCSE exams at the end of Year 9. In Year 7, pupils are set by Christmas and the lessons of the fast track groups are immediately tailored to progress at a quicker pace. Other pupils are in mixed ability sets. Pupils who sit their exams at the end of Key Stage 3 are also learning a second language, which follows the mainstream teaching routine, and they are eventually assessed at the end of Year 11.

The policies that the Government is implementing for the 14 to 16 education in Languages also appear to be in contradiction with some development plans for the 16 to 19 provision. The future of the system of assessment has been discussed lately by politicians and educators. Some suggest the introduction of a baccalaureate system which should be based on the existing International Baccalaureate. This would imply the necessity of learning a language in the post 16 education. Although this seems to be the direction favoured by many educators, Governmental plans appear to be different and somehow ambiguous.

The English baccalaureate which is a suggested route seems to be strongly following the lines of the current A Level system. As far as Modern Foreign Languages are concerned, Recommendation 14 included in the “14-19 reform: Inclusiveness, challenge, quality and choice”, published by the Dfes in 2004, states that “the Government should ensure a comprehensive and flexible Modern Foreign Language offer, building upon the National Languages Strategy (…) The existing entitlement to study a Modern Foreign Language at Key Stage 4 should be extended to 16-19 year olds.”

The United Kingdom is aware of the need to raise the profile of Modern Foreign Languages. The necessity to teach pupils languages so that they become proficient users is recognised by the Government. Several business groups have expressed their concern in the last ten years about the lack of skilled employees. Although it is common knowledge, as many studies and enquiries have researched this matter, none of the current or forthcoming educational policies appear to have the potential to change durably the present situation. “Britain is Europe’s foreign languages dunce: only one in three Britons can speak a second language (…) The inquiry into exam reform by the former chief schools inspector, Mike Tomlinson, suggested a foreign language should become a compulsory part of a new style vocational qualification such as Leisure and Tourism” (The Independent, 24/12/2004: 6). The Government strongly focuses on developing vocational studies and might integrate more specialised languages skills within the curriculum. However, the current Programme of Study for Key Stage 3 already focuses on the necessity to provide pupils with a range of appropriate transferable skills. The content of the curriculum, though, would benefit from covering a wider range of needs.


Traditionally the educational system of the United Kingdom conveyed first and foremost the national language, values and traditions throughout its curriculum. Modern Foreign Languages were not a priority.

The birth of Comprehensive Schools could have brought some progress. The selecting process to enter Secondary School known as the ‘eleven plus exam’ was suppressed and schools were opened to every individual, regardless of class, gender or ethnicity. Languages teaching had to be adapted to fit the new generation classrooms as the lessons were no longer attended by the elite of students. The process was not without difficulties and the exam results were not encouraging.

To try to improve matters, Modern Foreign Languages became compulsory at national examination level in 1986. At the same time, business professionals and associations promoting languages, such as the Centre for Information on Language Teaching, noticed a shortage of people able to use languages in professional contexts. To research into the reasons for this, the Nuffield Foundation started an inquiry whose final results were published in 2000. The Government was held partly responsible for the absence of coherent policies to promote languages within the United Kingdom.
The Nuffield Final Report suggested some measures which could help to develop the interest and knowledge in Modern Foreign Languages. Most government policies then followed the recommendations of the Nuffield Foundation. A National Curriculum was created in 1999. A new Strategy for teaching Modern Foreign Languages at Key Stage 3 was elaborated in 2003, alongside a Framework for teaching languages. The introduction of Modern Foreign Languages as a foundation subject within the curriculum in primary schools should be implemented by 2012. All these measures aim at enforcing the position of languages within the curriculum, as a subject that provides transferable skills and which is a valuable asset to the development of pupils’ literacy skills. However, alongside all these constructive improvements, the Government decided to change the status of Modern Foreign Languages by removing them from the core curriculum at Key Stage 4. Schools are required though to offer the option, as any student is entitled to benefit from tuition in a foreign language.

The innovations in the educational system between the 1960s and the present mean that the teaching and learning of Modern Foreign Languages have had to face many changes too. The resources available to teach the subject were not suitable after the schools transferred to comprehensive schools, and so the resources had to be adapted. Changes in the examination process with the introduction of the General Certificate of Secondary Education in 1988 also led to necessary adaptations. Publishers had to provide resources that fitted the new standardised curriculum, as Local Education Authorities lost their control in that matter in favour of the central Government. Another evolution is that the plethora of traditional resources meets new competition from the rapidly improving 21st century technology. Information and communication technology, and interactive whiteboards, are now a common feature in classrooms.

Although the future of language teaching should look positive with all these developments, there are still some detractors, but also some deeply rooted beliefs which are detrimental to the progress of this school subject. In the United Kingdom, people still do not feel a sense of belonging to continental Europe as far as traditions, culture and languages are concerned. “In every other school subject, the model of performance is one who has followed the same learning route that both pupil and teacher must take. In our subject, the model is the well educated native speaker, whose mastery neither the learner, nor most teachers, however gifted, can hope to equal.” (Hawkins, 1996: 16). Modern Foreign Languages remains a highly academic subject and the governmental decision to make it an optional entitlement leads many students to drop this subject which is both challenging and demanding. Schools in deprived catchment areas are not encouraging students to pursue the learning of this subject and some Key Stage 3 students are already showing signs of disaffection. School budgets vary tremendously according to the way Local Education Authorities allocate their funds, and if schools do not benefit from additional grants it is increasingly difficult to provide up-to-date resources.

Although the quality of published material has vastly improved, the statutory inclusion policy that the Government expects from schools requires a greater need for differentiation. Schools can hardly afford buying sets of textbooks to suit the needs of every individual student. Modern Foreign Languages are often a department that performs badly at national examination levels, such as the General Certificate of Secondary Education or the A Levels. Achievement is one of the most common decisive factors used by schools management to allocate funding. Therefore even if new technological devices are available, many Modern Foreign Languages departments can not get equipped with them because it is not within their budget. On the other hand, some colleagues who benefit from instruments such as interactive whiteboards are not trained appropriately and do not use them to their full potential. The educational value and actual effectiveness of these new resources are yet to be proven, once the novelty factor has subsided.
Teaching and Learning is the latest governmental focus in its effort to improve national examination results. The latter is many schools’ obsession as it determines their rank in the League Table, which is the way schools are judged by the general public. Some schools strongly guide their students in their option choice to obtain better overall results. Some other schools think about alternative strategies to enforce the government requirements but also develop their students’ languages skills, such as the creation of ‘fast track groups’, so that students can take their General Certificate of Secondary Education in Modern Foreign Languages at the end of Key Stage 3, when it is still a core subject.

The paradoxical political position of the United Kingdom in educational affairs reflects to some extent the country’s public opinion about language learning. According to surveys, the British population appears to regret their lack of proficiency in Modern Foreign Languages but do not transmit this to the younger generation, who is in a position to acquire languages skills at school. Although the decision to introduce Modern Foreign Languages at primary school level as a core subject in the curriculum can only be praised, its actual implementation is yet to be achieved appropriately. Primary school teachers who are not specialists in Modern Foreign Languages might resent teaching the subject, even if they are provided with suitable training. The shortage of linguists at higher level, that is to say studying A Level courses and/or attending University, will generate in turn professionals with no skills at all in this area, including primary schools teachers.

The recent focus that the Government makes on vocational training does not involve Modern Foreign Languages. On the contrary, it has led to their disappearance as a foundation subject in the curriculum at Key Stage 4. Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, made the following statement to the House of Commons on the 14-19 White Paper on 23 February 2005: “Historically, our education system has produced a high achieving elite while failing the majority. In today’s global economy, in which our national competitiveness increasingly depends on the skills of each an every person, we cannot afford so much talent to go to waste.” However, Modern Foreign Languages as an optional feature in the curriculum creates a divide in opportunities according to social class. Figures show that in deprived areas the disaffection and the rejection of Modern Foreign Languages at Key Stage 4, and to some extent at Key Stage 3, have already reached high percentages. Other measures, such as the reintroduction of assessments at the end of primary school, will lead to even more segregation in the access to education. Schools which are in the top places in the League Tables are the ones many parents want to send their children to. Some are even prepared to move to live in the catchment area of specific schools to offer the best opportunities to their children. The price of housing is dependent upon many criteria amongst which the proximity of a sought after school is a prominent one.

Besides, restricting access to some schools by selecting on aptitude is against the principle of comprehensive schools. The plan to turn all schools into Comprehensive Schools was never achieved, and the political direction taken by the current Labour Government turns away even more from this plan. Tony Blair announced a focus on developing schools with a ‘specialist status’ in 2000. Schools bidding for this status need to raise £50,000 in business sponsorship, set improvement targets for the school and involve the local community. If successful, schools obtain £100,000 in capital grants and an additional £120 per pupil a year for four years. They are also allowed to select up to 10 per cent of their new applicants. The Government seems to encourage selection and elitism and Modern Foreign Languages are highly affected by this ethos.

The scale of this research is limited and some implications may not have been analysed. Although the elitist approach of the Government is detrimental to Modern Foreign Languages as far as secondary schools are concerned, the introduction of languages at primary school level can generate hope as to a potential for language skills to be developed in the United Kingdom. One might put forward the possibility of outreach work that colleagues from specialist schools can offer to their primary school counterparts. This would improve the quality of the delivery of teaching and the learning outcomes. Besides, the number of students on roll in languages at secondary school level decreases, which implies that some Comprehensive School teachers will become available to teach full time in one primary school or in a consortium of primary schools.

In the perspective that human resources are dealt with adequately, the transition between primary and secondary level will have to be addressed. So far, students who start Year 7 are taught the rudiments of a Modern Foreign Language during their first year of instruction. The content of the curriculum needs to be altered rapidly to fit the level of ability students will have reached at the beginning of Year 7. As pupils come from various ‘feeder’ primary schools, the difference in level of achievement will have to be dealt with. Teaching and learning Modern Foreign Languages at primary school has a huge potential in so far that ‘fast tracking courses’ could become a standard practice, and most students could take their General Certificate of Secondary Education in Modern Foreign Languages at the end of Year 9. Achievement is self perpetuating; pupils who experience success in the early stages of their learning may well be motivated by this and continue to succeed on into Key Stage 4.

The development of vocational strands could also be interrelated with Modern Foreign Languages. Current General Vocational National Qualifications (GNVQ) which are an alternative post 16 route in specialities such as Leisure and Tourism, Media or Business Studies, do not include a module in Modern Foreign Languages. To encourage students to pursue languages at Key Stage 4, a vocational course in Modern Foreign Languages designed to lead on this speciality could be developed.