Focus on DERA (Digital Education Research Archive):Modern Foreign Languages (MFL)

The IOE Library has always collected documents published by government and other relevant bodies in the areas of education, training, children, and families. Today, the Official Publications Collection here at the Library is the largest of our special collections and is highly valued by our users.

In some ways, official publications are no different to other areas of publishing and we have witnessed a rapid transition towards a “digital by default” approach. You may already have read our recent blog post about DERA – our online repository founded on the traditions of our printed Official Publications Collection, dedicated to preserving the digital output of government in relation to education – where we highlighted content on the subject of school meals. This month, we are highlighting DERA resources focused on the teaching of languages in schools.

A recent online news headline Language learning: German and French drop in half in UK schools caught my attention. The article analysed information from secondary schools in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland about the number of pupils taking GCSE language courses. The decline in uptake of these courses appears to be alarmingly rapid, with drops of between 30% and 50% since 2013 being reported in England.

DERA holds a great deal of information related to languages in schools. A House of Commons Library Briefing Paper from December 2018 (Language teaching in schools (England) and a House Of Lords Library Briefing from November 2018 (Foreign Language Skills: Trends and Developments) outline the landscape for language teaching in classrooms. They describe what should be taught, expectations on the quality of teaching, levels of achievement and, interestingly the potential impact of UK leaving the European Union. This last point has received considerable coverage in the wider media, as demonstrated in the Guardian article, Brexit Britain cannot afford to be laissez-faire about its language crisis. The author David Cannadine says that Britons need to forget the idea that most other people speak English and so we do not need to make an effort to improve our linguistic skills. Additionally the UK’s linguistic under performance has economic repercussions in terms of lost trade and investment.

Languages are also vital to national security, diplomacy and “soft power”. Indeed at the reopening of the Foreign Office’s language centre in 2013, the then foreign secretary, William Hague, said:

Diplomacy is the art of understanding different cultures, and using this understanding to predict and influence behaviour. Speaking the local language is the essential first step in this process. It is an important sign of our respect for other societies, and it increases their respect for us in return.

One factor that is said to have had an influence upon the number of language teachers, especially in England, is the introduction of The English Baccalaureate (EBacc). The EBacc measures the achievements of pupils who have gained Key Stage 4 (GCSE level) qualifications in the following subjects: English; Mathematics; History or Geography; the Sciences and a Language. A House of Commons Briefing Paper 2017 gives a good overview of the motivations behind the EBacc, including the increase in the take-up of ‘core’ subjects which would best equip pupils for further study and work. Fears were expressed about the fact that extra attention paid to the core subjects might have an impact on subjects such as art, music and drama which were not included. The decision to not include religious education, although it would remain compulsory to teach it, was particularly controversial. It was also argued that the Ebacc would not necessarily be suited to a number of pupils.

The National Curriculum in England: languages programmes of study: key stage 2/ key stage 3 (2013) states that teaching “may be of any modern or ancient foreign language” and in 2016 the Government announced that a range of community languages would continue to be provided at GCSE and A level. These included Arabic, Modern Greek, Polish, Bengali, Urdu and Japanese as languages that can be studied alongside German, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Mandarin and Welsh.

The influence of Brexit on the learning and learning to teach MFL is already being felt, as discussed in The British Council Language Trends 2018 Report (p.7) with parents discouraging their children from learning languages once again because of the erroneous belief that everyone speaks English. In reality once the UK leaves the European Union the number of native English speakers will be greatly reduced and English may not retain its place as one of the “official” languages of the EU.

James A. Coleman’s article “Why the British do not learn languages: myths and motivation in the United Kingdom” discusses some of the reasons why pupils may not be motivated to study languages beyond GCSE Level. Amongst other factors, it is argued that the xenophobic attitude of some politicians and certain newspapers undermines the value that we place on learning an additional language. In addition, languages are sometimes portrayed as a ‘hard’ option that involves more effort to gain a good grade.

One part of the UK where children can be said to start with a positive attitude towards the learning of languages may be Wales, where education is provided through the medium of English and Welsh. In DERA I found the 2009 document from the Welsh Assembly Making Languages Count which makes the point:

Our young people therefore have a head start in the development of the skills, knowledge and understanding that are at the heart of language learning and can be readily applied to wider European and world languages.

The Welsh Government also funds a MFL Mentoring Scheme whereby undergraduates and postgraduates are placed in secondary schools to encourage engagement with MFL via face-to-face and online mentoring with the aim of increasing the number of students studying MFL at GCSE level and beyond. The success achieved in Wales can be replicated elsewhere in the UK as demonstrated by Anna Bawden’s recent article describing the results of a trial in South Yorkshire. Year 8/9 pupils at 10 secondary schools in Sheffield received 5 weeks of mentoring from language undergraduates from Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam Universities.

The success of this scheme may help to mitigate the effect of current financial constraints that have led to UK schools turning to foreign governments to fund languages . It is unlikely that the Italian, Portuguese, French or German governments will want to continue to help once Britain leaves the EU.

Once again an interesting article in the popular press has lead via DERA and Explore to a better understanding of the background to the current situation concerning the teaching and learning of MFL. There are examples of schemes which if implemented on a larger scale could lead to more children enjoying their language lessons and wanting to study MFL to the highest level.

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