Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Shirley Lawes on ‘The Dearing Languages Review

When it was first announced that Lord Dearing and Dr Lid King, National Director for Languages, had been appointed to investigate the crisis in foreign languages in schools, teachers and foreign language specialists welcomed the attention to be given to their beleaguered subject. It was no mean challenge to try to sort out the mess of government policy on foreign languages and to salvage their role as an essential element of the school curriculum.

Their recently published Languages Review is disappointing on both counts. The report seeks numerous ways of reinvigorating foreign languages, calling for ‘action to recover the situation’ and extra funding, as well as placing great emphasis on the importance of foreign language learning in the primary school. However, Dearing side-steps the real problem: in 2004 the government made foreign language learning optional at Key Stage 4 and since then numbers have fallen drastically. As a result of this policy decision, foreign language learning in English state secondary schools is in terminal decline. But, instead of proposing the reversal of the policy, Dearing prefers to recommend ‘incentives’ to schools to encourage greater participation. Only if schools don’t manage to halt the decline in numbers of pupils opting for continuing to learn a foreign language at Key Stage 4, does the report propose a return to statutory status. This is more than a missed opportunity, it is an evasion of the key issue which has the effect of legitimising the prevailing view that languages are too hard for most young people and they aren’t up to the challenge.

The Languages Review notes that the fall in numbers of pupils taking foreign languages at Key Stage 4 is closely linked to social class. He is right, since 2004 schools with higher levels of pupils from relatively deprived backgrounds were first in the queue to abandon compulsory status in 2004. The message went out to schools and young people: that foreign language learning was not for the working class, and as a result they opted out.

Dearing’s attempts to address this issue will only make the problem worse. Instead of defending foreign language learning as part of what should be a good education for all, he recommends that in order to encourage pupils to continue with languages after Year 9, schools should be looking at alternative accreditation to GCSE. He suggests a curriculum development that reflects what has already been introduced in science, that is, ‘alternatives which suit the different requirements of young people depending on their aspirations and aptitude (for science)’. For foreign languages, this means the abandonment of any meaningful learning that sees foreign language as a gateway to universal culture, in favour of formalising a ‘get by’ curriculum for the majority. It will be left to the independent sector, where the study of languages continues to be compulsory to GCSE level, to take foreign language study seriously. Already 30% of undergraduates come from outside the state sector. Foreign language learning is once again becoming an 'elitist' subject area.

The Dearing Languages Review as a whole reflects the prevailing preoccupation with the functional foreign language learning for vocational reasons. Despite a number of individual recommendations that one wouldn’t argue with, like funded immersion courses, trips abroad, and a review of the GCSE exam syllabus, the report offers an impoverished view of what foreign languages could contribute throughout every young person’s education.

The Dearing Languages Review, published on 12 March 2007, is available at: http://www.teachernet.gov.uk/teachingandlearning/subjects/languages/languagesreview/