Teaching and Learning Modern Foreign Languages in the United Kingdom Part 1


I.1. Modern Foreign Languages within the curriculum: 1900 – 1988

I.1.a. A curriculum?

Between the1880s and 1904, many pupils had the opportunity of learning a Modern Foreign Language. The main language taught was French; however, German was also taught occasionally. This was the case in most schools existing at the time, although schooling was less compulsory, with compulsory education targeting only a range of students from six to twelve.

In 1904, the Board of Education suppressed Modern Foreign Languages from the curriculum. This lasted for almost 60 years. This had an impact on generations of British pupils, in so far that languages did not appear to be important; and therefore, for years, the British have argued that they were no good at learning them.

The 1944 Education Act was a turning point for the United Kingdom’s educational system. It made school compulsory between the ages of 5 and 15. The Ministry of Education, which had become the Department for Education and Science, introduced the “tripartite system”. Secondary schools were converted into ‘Grammar schools’ for the most able students, the senior schools turned into ‘Secondary Modern Schools’ and had the majority of the students on their roll, and ‘Secondary Technical Schools’ for those with a technical/scientific aptitude were created. The age at which the transition between primary and secondary schools was to be made became more definite in the 1980s, when the different age groups were divided into five Key Stages. Students had to start secondary school at the end of Key Stage 2.

In 1944, the Local Education Authorities provided the facilities and equipment for schools. They also acquired the resources needed and paid teachers. They were to make sure that there was enough space to accommodate all the students between the age of 5 and 15 within the catchment area. They also determined the length of the school day. They had an overview of the curriculum, but no control as such. Over time, the way Local Education Authorities administered their area was very different and the emphasis placed on certain types of school had a tremendous impact on the wider community.

The Secretary of State did not have the legal right to determine the contents of the curriculum. The Department for Education and Sciences’ requests, as far as the curriculum was concerned, were extremely limited except for Religious Studies (daily worship and religious education became statutory). The subjects taught, and the methods and contents, were left to the teaching profession and head teachers. This was the case until the 1980s, though Her Majesty’s Inspectorate and the Office for Standards in Education were inspecting and reporting about schools. No major change happened until 1988.

Therefore between 1904 and 1964, the teaching of languages as we perceive it in 2005 was very limited, in the few schools that offered this option. These were mainly grammar schools or public schools. Indeed, often students were taught only Greek or Latin. Where Modern Foreign Languages were made available, the main skills developed were reading and writing. The emphasis was on grammar, literacy and the communicative aspects of languages were completely overlooked. The emphasis was placed on developing intellectual skills, and the teaching methods were the ones employed for classical languages. Modern Foreign Languages were not seen as a means to an end; the ability to communicate with a native speaker of the target language seemed to be of very little importance. The purpose of learning a language was to elevate yourself to higher academic standards and to be part of an elite.

I.1.b 1960s-1970s: ambiguous positions

Until 1965, universities in the United Kingdom required prospective students to have a basic knowledge of a foreign language in order to process their applications. The decision made at the Standing Conference on University Entrance in 1966 ended a hundred year old requirement which gave access to higher education. This can be considered as undermining the status of languages. Monolingualism from then on became acceptable even from the people who were at the time believed to be the ‘creme de la creme’ of the nation.

Some highly regarded universities such as Cambridge tried to carry on with the Modern Language prerequisite in order to be more selective, and to have on their rolls candidates of very high academic competences. However, they were prevented from doing so, as it was stated in the Cambridge University Reporter, issue 335/109, 17 January 1979: “The University concludes that no university in isolation could afford to impose entrance requirement designed to encourage breadth of study in the sixth form…they would have to be imposed by the Department for Education and Science”. It is interesting to note that ironically the decision to suppress the language prerequisite was made the same year when the Centre for Information on Language Teaching was created.

However, the suppression of a basic competence requirement in languages can also be interpreted as a way of democratising the entrance to university and making it accessible to more candidates. Indeed, as languages before the 1960s were mainly taught in Grammar Schools and Public Schools, which used selective entry processes and necessitated parents’ funding, this decision enabled students who attended Secondary Modern Schools to apply for university course.

The government tried to take some steps to improve the situation. A feasibility study was carried out in 1962, for an early start at learning a Modern Foreign Language in primary schools. Sir Edward Boyle launched a “French from 8” pilot programme, and the Nuffield foundation produced the necessary teaching material. In 1970, an interim report was written by Dr Clare Burstall from the National Foundation for Educational Research, which reveals a consistent “linear correlation” between pupils’ performances and parental occupations. The National Foundation for Educational Research published a final report about the “French from 8” programme in 1974, which concluded in the Government deciding to withdraw their support in funding the scheme…

I.1.c. The birth of new comprehensive schools

In the 1960s, the educational system moved towards a more child-centred system, focusing on children as individuals and on kinaesthetic teaching methods. This appears to be in direct link with the introduction of comprehensive schools, a new generation of schools where the eleven-plus exam had no longer to be taken to gain entry.

The developments that happened in the 1960s are due to many factors that were affecting British society. It was a time of relative prosperity. There were no unemployment difficulties and this had a very positive impact on the community’s perception and their eagerness for fast progress in many fields. Local Education Authorities were encouraging innovations within schools.

The idea of comprehensive education, which implies that all students attend a common school rather than having to sit the eleven-plus exam, which was a selective process to determine whether the child could enter a secondary modern, a grammar or a specialist school, came rather late to the United Kingdom. Other European countries had already adapted their education system to the changing society generated by World War II and its aftermath. Between 1945 and the beginning of the 1950s, some Local Education Authorities suggested the creation of comprehensive schools but the Government was extremely reluctant to this idea and decided to even strengthen the system in favour of Grammar Schools.

By the early 1960s, the Labour government changed its plans and became favourable to comprehensive schools and started to suggest the abolition of the eleven plus exam. As society was prosperous and the middle class expanding, public opinion was approved of a new generation of schools. The current system was seen as very unequal, benefiting boys more than girls, and the middle-class more than the working-class.

The 1964 Labour manifesto for the General election put great emphasis on abolishing the eleven plus exam and on developing comprehensive schools; however, after winning the elections the Government did not require Local Education Authorities to go comprehensive. Therefore, comprehensive schools started to exist alongside Grammar Schools. The Government tried to further develop their action plan, but it never managed to pass an Act, as Labour lost the General Elections in 1970.

Although the project did not completely reach its initial target, many secondary schools decided to become non selective. Some of the Grammar schools having a direct grant from the Government went comprehensive, as they only had one other alternative which was to turn into fully private schools.

In 1969, the Department for Education issued Circular 18/69, compelling teachers of Modern Foreign Languages to complete a course of professional training to teach in maintained schools. It was seen as vital to address the lack of competence in the classroom, particularly, since the first General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level in Modern Foreign Languages had been introduced in 1964. The Department for Education had also published a circular the same year (2/64) stressing the importance of developing the teaching and learning of languages, considering the economic and political context, and the need to be competitive in international and European business. Indeed, the United Kingdom was trying to become a member of the Common Market and efforts had to be made in all areas to try to obtain a positive answer, which they eventually gained in 1973, when Britain entered the European Economic Community.

In 1977, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (HMI) published the report “11-16: the Red Book”, suggesting to include a Modern Foreign Language within the core curriculum. They advised to teach a language four periods a week in a forty-period week. The same year, HMI carried out a survey, “Modern Languages in Comprehensive Schools”, which reached alarming conclusions: two out of three students starting a language at the age of 11 were dropping it at the age of 14. Only one out of ten pupils reached the General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level pass grade after five years of studying the language.

The report also mentioned the lack of professional competence of teachers who did not plan their lessons adequately, the absence of schemes of work, the fact that class objectives were not clear, and that the lessons were not challenging enough. Although teachers were obviously partly responsible for the situation, they had to face new difficulties brought in by comprehensive schools. The groups they taught were mainly in mixed ability; and this learning context implied the use of differentiation by challenging more able students and helping students having learning difficulties. The emphasis was no longer on writing skills, as had been the case previously. They had to adapt their teaching techniques to meet these new needs.

Margaret Thatcher’s first Education Act, which was published the very same year when she became Prime Minister, gave back the right to Local Education Authorities to select pupils for secondary school entrance. She revoked the Education Act issued by the Labour government in 1976. She also decided that the Government should control the school curriculum.

I.2. Significant changes: 1985 – 1996

“The irresistible rise of English as a vehicle for international communication made it easy to argue that the educational cost of producing a low level of communicative skill was too high to be justified in a curriculum under pressure from physical and human sciences. The motivation of the “new” learners, when a modern language (almost always French) was made compulsory in the comprehensive schools, was low, with a 60% drop out rate, which had a catastrophic effect on the morale of teachers.” (Hawkins, 1996:325). This is the analysis made by Hawkins of the speech delivered by George Perren, director of Centre for Information on Language Teaching, in 1976 at Kings College in London.

In 1985, the Department for Education and Employment published a document entitled “Better Schools”, which suggested that most students in secondary schools should receive a course in Modern Foreign Languages that could be of actual use, and that a second language should be offered in Year 8 or in Year 9 to the students who would gain from it. Nevertheless, one year later another report showed signs of very low achievement in Modern Foreign Languages. That year, 59,860 boys sat the Certificate of Secondary Education, and 17.63% gained a pass grade; 103,466 girls sat the same exam and 22.63% passed. The results were better though for the students who sat a General Certificate Ordinary Level. Among the 58,962 boys who took the exam, 58.87% of them got an A to C grade. As for the 88,695 girls who did the same exam, 60.47% obtained A to C, which was the pass grade for this specific exam.

Despite all the reports previously mentioned, the Consultative Document about the Curriculum for students aged 11 to 16 delivered in 1987 recommended to include a Modern Foreign Language within the foundation subjects. This means that a language would become compulsory for all the students for five years. It also implied that they would have to sit a formal examination after the five-year course.

In 1988, a long awaited reform of the examination system took place. In 1978, the Waddell Report already recommended a single exam at age 16 to replace the General Certificate of Education and the Certificate of Secondary Education.

The Certificate of Secondary Education introduced in 1965, which was designed for those students who were not able to achieve the traditional O level, was eventually replaced by the General Certificate of Secondary Education, with the 1988 Education Reform Act being published. This new exam, which was launched across the subjects, put an emphasis on assessing the four skills of listening, writing, reading and speaking. This was seen as one of the biggest achievements within the Modern Foreign Languages field in many years. Keith Joseph was the then Secretary of State for Education. His decision to initiate a new General Certificate of Secondary Education was aimed at preventing Local Education Authorities from interfering with assessments. So far, the curriculum had been in their hands and often fulfilled the requirements of some specific universities. It did not necessarily follow a logical and progressive content.

Testing and assessments were to become a regular procedure that students of future generations would have to sit at the ages of 7, 11, 14 and 16. Students’ individual results would not be available to everybody, but the school overall results would be made available. This was the birth of the League tables, dreaded by many British Schools. League tables are nowadays published in newspapers and analysed on television. This influences parents in the wishes they express for their children to be enrolled in one school rather than another.

The 1988 Education Reform Act’s main innovation was to establish for the first time a prescribed national curriculum for all state schools for the students from the age of five upwards. Within this curriculum, it was decided that languages would figure as a foundation subject in secondary schools, although informally many comprehensive schools, which before this Act had the freedom to decide whether they wanted their students to pursue a language up to the age of 16 or not, had already made them statutory.

In 1996, the Education Act reinforced all the previous Acts from the famous Butler Education act of 1944 onwards, but in the languages field it mainly reasserted the fact that Modern Foreign Languages was a foundation subject and that all students in Year 10 had to take their French, German or Spanish GCSE. Schools had to obey the law.

I.3. The Nuffield Inquiry

The Nuffield Foundation is a charitable trust which was created in 1943 by William Morris, also known as Lord Nuffield. He was the founder of Morris Motors. His original target was to “advance social well being, particularly through research and practical experiment. The Foundation aims to achieve this by supporting work which will bring about improvements in society, and which is founded on careful reflection and informed by objective and reliable evidence.” (www.nuffieldfoundation.org).

The foundation’s income is based on returns of investments, which makes it totally independent from the Government. It implies that the inquiries, research and reports are objective and unprejudiced. The foundation provides grants for various projects and supports some scientists and social scientists. Lately, they have launched programmes to develop the access to justice for all; they have instigated a programme on child protection, and have invested money to further the development of some Commonwealth countries, especially where education and health are concerned. The foundation is doing a comparative study about elderly people and the concerns about their financial problems in later life. They also keep what is called an open door, to fund missions that are submitted to them. Ideally, these innovative projects should be about one of the foundation’s areas of special interest, such as learning and social provision, law and society, or science and education.

The Nuffield foundation has lately worked on “Education 14-19”, and how to review the current system in order to inform future policies. They have also researched on speech and language difficulties, to try to enhance the work currently done. Assessment is another priority area. They have investigated curriculum policies and practices, with a particular attempt to see how Information and Communication Technology is being used in schools.

In spring 1998, the Foundation was contacted by language teachers’ representatives and delegates from the world of business, to inquire about the situation of Modern Foreign Languages in the United Kingdom. A Committee of ten people appointed by the trustees of the Foundation worked for two years on the following questions:

o “What capability in languages will this country need in the next twenty years if it is to fulfill its economic, strategic, social and cultural responsibilities and aims and the aspirations of its citizens?

o To what extent do present policies and arrangements meet these needs?

o What strategic planning and initiatives will be required in the light of the present position?” (The Nuffield Foundation, 2000: 10).

The Committee, headed by Sir Trevor McDonald, published a consultative report entitled “Where are we going with languages?”, and then many surveys were carried out by external agencies. After two years of work in partnership with organisations such as the Association for Language Learning, the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research, many universities, Local Education Authorities, business schools and Chambers of Commerce, they published a final report and recommendation pamphlet entitled “Languages: the next generation” on 10 May 2000.

This was an extremely straightforward and long awaited report, which had strong significance for a number of professionals both in the business sphere and in the education field. It gained mixed critiques from the papers; one of the Times educational reporters reacted quite negatively and doomed some of the recommendations as mere utopia: “However, it remains to be seen whether the Nuffield report will help to ease our national embarrassment. Its authors are unrealistic in asking that all university applicants sit a foreign language competency test, but they are right to call for more language learning in junior schools, specialist primary schools, and improved language teaching in secondaries.” (TES, 10th of May 2000). This statement expresses mixed feelings about some aspects of the report, and is quite opinionated as far as secondary schools are concerned.

The Nuffield Languages Inquiry’s final report reached a number of conclusions from its main findings:

o “English native speakers tend to rely on the fact that their language is being spoken all over the world. However, in the current economic context, business meetings can not be held relying on the benevolence of potential partners who accept to speak a foreign language to communicate.

o There is a lack of proficiency in one or more languages within the United Kingdom human resources. Many foreigners have the opportunity of finding employment in the country whereas it does not seem to happen much the other way round.

o Languages are not taught efficiently in secondary schools, and the number of languages offered is too limited. Often, Modern Foreign Languages are presented as irrelevant even within schools. The level of achievement is too low.

o The post 16 provision for languages is too specialised and needs to broaden up; after sitting the GCSE, 90% of students drop the language that they had been learning.

o Government initiatives are not consistent throughout the compulsory schooling years and there is no transition managed with the universities.

o The tuition of languages starts too late in the child’s development and it would be much more beneficial from an earlier age.

o There is a crisis in the numbers on rolls in Modern Foreign Languages departments at university.

o There is a lack of qualified languages teachers, and the previous point implies that there will not be an increase in the number of new staff”.

The Committee working on this report, among whom Sir John Boyd, of Churchill College, Cambridge, made proposals to alleviate the situation. Although the report was originally an appeal made by various non governmental groups, the Committee addressed directly the Government in their proposals. The profile of Modern Foreign Languages must be raised within British society. Speaking more than one language must become a priority. In order to do so, a Government representative should be appointed to work specifically on this issue. Languages should be taught to pupils from the age of seven, at an age were there are no inhibitions and children have an intrinsic motivation for learning. The teaching and learning of Modern Foreign Languages in secondary schools needs to be improved. Students should have the necessary skills to learn another language later in life. The curriculum has to be revisited, and there is a great need for differentiation in approaches and contents so that every individual student can benefit from the experience of learning a language.

The report also advises to abrogate the decision made in 1966, which revoked the need for skills in a language to enter university. However, there should be alternative courses in languages for 16 to 19 year olds who do not wish to specialise in languages, but who would still like to have some level of competence. Information and Communication Technology, which is in full development within schools, has to be part of the teaching of a Modern Foreign Language, and the latter should become a “key skill” as Numeracy, Literacy or Information and Communication Technology are already.

The key message of the Nuffield Inquiry Committee is related to policies that the Government would have to undertake to improve standards in education. “The national strategy for languages should provide a coherent and consistent path of language learning from early childhood throughout life. To lay sound foundations for this path, learning for all children should start in primary school and become a sustained dimension of their entire school education (…). The government should make arrangements for the development of a national framework to define levels of language competence and provide a set of robust grade descriptors for levels of attainment to which all language qualifications should be connected.” (The Nuffield Foundation, 2000: 94).

So, the Nuffield Inquiry final report tried to tackle the issues that had to be dealt with in order to meet the country’s linguistic needs at the beginning of the 21st century. In 2001, the trustees of the Foundation established the Nuffield Language Programme to further develop the findings and more importantly the recommendations given. Their aim was to help to go from theory to practice, by working alongside the Government and various agencies that had to be involved in the process to make it functional, such as languages associations and business advisers. They wanted to contribute to the project by giving their expertise in the upcoming political debates, to promote languages within the community. Although they wished to play a role in the birth of new strategies, they also had decided that their involvement should not exceed a period of two years, after which it would be up to the Government to follow through and implement the proposals.


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