At the end of last year, Sir Ron Dearing’s interim Languages Review was published. Headteacher Jim Donnelly looks at what he had to say and the suggestions for a way forward.

One of the most significant aspects of the National Curriculum, introduced in England following the Education Reform Act of 1988, was that the government of the day indicated very clearly that this country was going to take the teaching of modern foreign languages seriously.

During the following decade, schools took on the challenge of ensuring that all students would study at least one modern foreign language throughout Key Stages 3 and 4. This was quite an undertaking in a country where not every child had studied a second language (in addition to English) at all.  Within 10 years around 80% of students were studying a modern foreign language to GCSE level.

However, just as it appeared that progress was being made, other pressures on the secondary curriculum meant that a different government announced that the study of a modern foreign language at Key Stage 4 would become optional with effect from September 2004. (This was to be offset by a requirement that all children from the age of seven had to have the opportunity – not necessarily in school time – to study a modern foreign language by 2010.)

Once this was announced, many schools jumped the gun. They reasoned that if the government was going to drop the requirement then Ofsted would not be pursuing any decision to do so before the official date. The effect was so dramatic that an enquiry was set up in autumn 2006, under Sir Ron Dearing, to investigate the situation and to present an interim report before Christmas.

The Dearing Interim Languages Review

Included in the Dearing Interim Languages Review’s provisional proposals are that:

  • language learning be embedded in the National Curriculum for primary schools in the next review of the primary curriculum
  • the Language Ladder is promoted for general use in schools
  • action should be taken to arrest the continuing loss of qualified teachers
  • sufficient provision should be made for the continued professional development of language teachers in secondary schools
  • assessment of speaking and listening in GCSE is changed to make it less personally stressful and hence a more relevant test of  pupils’ capabilities
  • current regulations on language provision are withdrawn and that schools should be able to offer one or more languages based on clear non-statutory guidance from the DfES..

The final recommendations from the Languages Review are due this month.

The situation in secondary schools

As highlighted above, many schools acted in anticipation of the change. Dearing reports that the proportion taking a GCSE in an MFL had fallen to 68% by the time the change officially came into effect in 2004. In 2006 it was down to 51%. A survey in November 2006 by CILT, (the National Centre for Languages) showed that for those in the last two years of statutory schooling, the proportion taking a language was continuing to fall. This, as Dearing admits, means we are heading for some further reductions in GCSE numbers in future years.

While the GCSE is not the only qualification available to students at Key Stage 4, the indications are that the numbers pursuing a language, for example as a module in a vocational course, are comparatively small.

It is interesting to note that French and German, as the two main languages offered by maintained schools, have felt the full effect of the fall. However, Spanish substantially held its ground, as did the much smaller numbers taking other languages. This reflects, possibly, the fact that many primary schools without a long history of offering an MFL are choosing Spanish rather than French and that secondary schools are responding to this.

It is clear that some schools – mainly specialist language colleges, one suspects – are continuing to require students to study an MFL until the end of Key Stage 4. However, where an MFL has been made optional it is equally clear that not many students are choosing one. Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that in some schools the numbers taking an MFL at Key Stage 4 are barely in double figures.

One particularly worrying statistic for the government is the uptake of an MFL at Key Stage 4 when linked to free school meal entitlement – only 26% of those entitled to a free school meal now take an MFL at this key stage compared to 49% of those who are not. This was a worry that was expressed at the time the original decision was made and unfortunately it has turned out to have been justified.

There is also a concern that it is more difficult to get a higher grade in an MFL than in other subjects. This appears to be borne out by GCSE national subject residuals and will, of course, have an effect on students when they are making subject choices.

The primary school MFL initiative

The government has provided funding from 2006-08 for the Primary MFL initiative.  The money has been allocated to encourage primary schools to move ahead in this area and to meet the 2010 target. Other actions include providing MFL training for primary school teachers and allowing primary schools to employ foreign language assistants in the way that secondary schools have been doing for a long time.

One suspects that primary schools will be required to ensure that an MFL is included in the curriculum as opposed to the present requirement that it should be offered to children by choice. Many primary schools are already doing this. Some have made a virtue out of two necessities and are using the PPA (planning, preparation and assessment) time they now have to allocate to their teachers to introduce an MFL into the timetable, taught by a variety of people.

Section four of the Dearing report gives reasons why it is essential for our children to study a modern foreign language and it is worth reading in its entirety. Here we will concentrate on the implications of the present situation for secondary school managers.

There is little doubt that the work going on in primary schools will eventually bear fruit. However, in the short term it does present a significant challenge for secondary schools. If pupils in one primary school, for example, study Spanish as part of an enrichment activity in the final year of primary school then there is not likely to be a great problem if they then study French on arrival at secondary school. There is an argument that study of one foreign language can help with the study of a second one.  Parents are likely to be happy enough in this situation.

However, if children coming from a particular primary school have made a more serious study of (to use the same example) Spanish, the parents will be less happy about them not being able to continue with its study at secondary school. This situation is compounded by the fact that different primary schools are at different stages with regard to the introduction of foreign language study. Some secondary schools are taking in children who have studied Spanish for four or five years at the same time as taking in children from other schools where there has been no study at all.

Progression and continuity at Key Stage 3 are therefore vital concerns for secondary school managers. The historical predominance of French teaching in secondary schools means that many secondary schools do not have teachers who can teach Spanish, Italian or (in some cases) Mandarin. However, these languages are currently being studied by children in some schools at Key Stage 2.

Schools may find the easiest way to deal with this is to cooperate with each other in the short term. Whatever they do they will have to meet the requirements of their students and their parents; whether this will mean retraining their existing languages teachers or finding some other way of providing language teaching remains to be seen.

Assessment and the Languages Ladder

The introduction of the Languages Ladder as a means of assessment has the potential to make things easier, more difficult or both! This accreditation scheme allows for progress to be assessed below GCSE level, separately in the skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing. The advantage of this is that children will be able to measure their progress and will hopefully be encouraged to continue improving and working their way up the ‘ladder’.

This will also provide some information for secondary schools on the levels attained by pupils at the entry age of 11. This Ladder is designed to be used at secondary school (and beyond). It will provide some attainable goals for students at Key Stage 3 and may encourage some of them to progress to Key Stage 4.

The Dearing report also proposes that the GCSE syllabuses should be revised at Key Stage 4, to meet the key challenges of both relevance and the perceived difficulty of getting high grades. The report highlights the fact that the present arrangement for assessing speaking and listening skills is very short and highly stressful and not therefore a reliable way of assessing what all the candidates can do. He proposes that these parts of the assessment should be over a period, through moderated teacher assessment. This would be a welcome relief to examinations’ officers in schools where all students take an MFL to GCSE level.

Two further suggestions are worthy of note. Dearing suggests that there should be an entitlement for students to have a certificated level of achievement at the end of Key Stage 3 – which could be done through the use of the Languages Ladder – and that achievement in an MFL could be included in school performance tables.

Dearing comments that the response of schools to the ministerial letter requiring them to set targets for the numbers of students taking an MFL at Key Stage 4 ‘has been disappointingly low’.

The plans for new 14-19 diplomas present an opportunity to include the study of a modern foreign language in a meaningful way as part of the course of study.  However, it is a moot point if this will lead to study in sufficient depth to be meaningful.

What should school leaders do?

Whatever the outcome of the review, it is sensible for school leaders to have a strategy for modern foreign language teaching and learning in their schools. It is suggested that the strategy should address the following key issues:

1. How will we ensure progression and continuity from primary schools? Do we need to retrain our teachers and/or find alternative ways of delivery?

2. What plans do we have for ensuring that the MFL competence of all students will be certificated at the end of Year 9. What do we know about the Languages Ladder? How can we find out what we need to know? (Is it possible to link a certain level with the option of dropping its study at Key Stage 4?)

3. How can we as a school promote the study of a modern foreign language as being both worthwhile and fun?

4. Can we develop international links that will bring our students into contact with native speakers? (There is government funding available through the British Council that may help here). The government is hoping that all schools will achieve the International Schools’ Award by 2010, so this might be a particularly useful starting point.

The Dearing review can be downloaded at

Schools looking for partners abroad can start at the following website: