Following the publication of Lord Dearing’s recommendations, Angela Youngman explores the implications of every KS2 child learning a modern foreign language

Foreign languages are set to become a compulsory part of the KS2 curriculum from 2010 leaving headteachers with the headache of attempting to fit another subject into an already overcrowded curriculum.

The decision was announced by the government in March 2007 following a review of language policy carried out by Lord Dearing and the DfES national director for languages Dr Lid King. The review had been initiated following a sharp fall in the numbers of pupils taking foreign language GCSEs. In 2004 pupils were allowed to drop languages in KS4 when government ministers acknowledged the subject’s unpopularity. Since then numbers taking a GCSE qualification have dropped from three-quarters of the age group to half, with the biggest decline being seen in state comprehensives. Lord Dearing and Dr Lid King were asked to investigate the situation and come up with some solutions.

They advocate that languages should be introduced much earlier in a pupil’s school career. The thinking is that by encouraging children to develop a love of languages from an early age, they will be more willing to continue their studies up to and beyond GCSE.

As education secretary Alan Johnson points out, ‘The earlier you start learning a language the better. Making language study compulsory from seven to 14 will give pupils seven years to build up their knowledge, confidence and experience.’

So what does Lord Dearing’s report recommend?

  • Languages are to become a compulsory part of the curriculum from seven to 14 from 2010 when the curriculum is next reviewed by the QCA.
  • Using the Languages Ladder to record and reward progress in the four skills of learning – listening, speaking, reading and writing – and counting points gained through assessment in performance tables.
  • More personalised learning, with informed classroom assessment of every child’s language learning near the end of KS2 to inform teachers at KS3 thus enabling a smooth transition between primary and secondary school teaching.
  • Greater support for those who want to study community languages and offering a broader range of languages such as Mandarin and Urdu.
  • Work with embassies to broaden the range of languages on offer.
  • No tightly prescribed approach to language teaching, as this does not suit every child.
  • Active use of immersion courses to help pupils manage the transition from primary to secondary.
  • Launching a National Teachers Research Scholarship scheme for languages, enabling teachers to work together with other experts to develop their teaching skills.
  • Improving teaching through a range of support mechanisms which includes training secondary school teachers to work in support of primary colleagues and helping good teachers to share skills with others.
  • An additional £3m over four years for a HEFCE scheme to encourage young people to study languages.
  • Developing a web-based Open School for Languages
  • An annual budget of over £50m a year to support teaching in primary and secondary schools and to help fund supporting organisations.

Adequate funding is regarded as crucial to the success of the initiative. The National Union of Teachers was already warned that introducing a new requirement in primary schools could not be carried out ‘on the cheap’. General secretary Steve Sinnott points out, ‘Alongside training, there will be a need for a fully expert teacher to be available to every primary school. The primary curriculum itself remains hopelessly overloaded. With a limited number of teachers covering all subjects, small primary schools will have their own special problems in introducing a new subject. There should be a government audit of the additional staffing and training needs of all primary schools.’

Lord Dearing comments, ‘Headteachers have agreed that this was not an issue for a quick fix. We learned from pupils during the consultation that one menu does not suit all. We want to see pupils, whatever their backgrounds, achieve at levels appropriate to them recognising their achievements and providing greater choice. Pupils need to have the flexibility and desire to succeed and teachers need greater training and support.’

Training is essential. In the long term, the Training and Development Agency (TDA) is planning to develop a 9-14 languages teacher-training course. The assistant director of initial teacher training at the TDA, Jacquie Nunn, says, ‘We will be working closely with schools and teacher training providers to build the capacity both in initial teacher training and in training and development for existing teachers.’

Increasing numbers of primary schools will be benefiting from a new training initiative that is currently underway. Schools are being invited to participate in a programme to give language teaching skills to existing teachers. Organised by CILT (National Centre for Languages,, it forms a national and regional programme. It began in 2005 when a group of language advisers were invited to train as national trainers. These trainers in turn have now begun to train regional trainers who will pass on their skills to those involved in primary languages in local authorities. There are currently 873 regional trainers involved in the project which focuses on planning and teaching within the KS2 framework including teaching methods, assessment, using ICT and transition from KS2 to KS3. According to CILT, feedback from both national and regional training sessions has been extremely positive as it helps build the confidence and capacity of primary teachers to introduce and sustain language teaching in their schools.

The Languages Ladder is a key ingredient in the initiative being part of the National Languages Strategy. It forms the national recognition scheme for languages and possesses six stages: breakthrough, preliminary, intermediate, advanced, proficiency and mastery. This comprises in total 17 grades, of which the first three are at the beginner stage. Learners can choose to be assessed in one or more of the four languages skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening. This enables a learner to progress faster in, for example, speaking rather than writing. It is designed to be as flexible as possible. Learners can use a set of ‘I can…’ statements to assess their current language skills and monitor progress. Teachers can use the Languages Ladder in the classroom and will be able to award certificates to learners who are working at a particular grade on the Languages Ladder. From September 2005 Language Ladder qualifications have been available in Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, French, German, Gujarati, Hindi, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Modern Greek, Punjabi, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Swedish, Tamil, Turkish, Urdu, Welsh and Yoruba.

Since the scheme was launched in 2005-06 there have been 22,436 entries for individual skills from 131 centres. Nine per cent of these have been in primary schools compared to 64% in secondary schools.

At present 70% of primary schools are now offering some element of language teaching or have plans to do so. Of those primary schools, which are currently offering some element of language teaching, French remains the most popular option although Spanish is quickly catching up.

It will be up to headteachers and their governing bodies to choose which language or languages to teach. They will also have to find time on the timetable – not an easy task. Martin Ward of the Association of School and College Leaders comments, ‘Headteachers have to squeeze more into KS2 and this will mean that something will have to make room for it.’

Flexibility may be the key according to Joan Dickies, a regional trainer for Norfolk, who says, ‘Schools need to do one hour a week of languages. This could be taught in two or three sessions. Finding a half hour slot is easier than one hour. The remaining 30 minutes can be taught in 10-minute slots during the week perhaps as part of other lessons, or in greetings at the start of class.’

Like it or not modern foreign language are going to be compulsory in KS2 from 2010. Be prepared!

Case studies:

Wicklewood Primary School, Norfolk
Wicklewood has been active in primary language teaching for some years. It has a policy of introducing French at the earliest possible age, ie in Reception and KS1. In Year 3 children are introduced to German while in Years 4, 5 and 6 they do French and some German. There is no foreign language written work until Y5. All class teachers have to teach French. The school uses a language scheme called Rigolo which utilises interactive whiteboards. Teachers can use the interactive teacher or switch it off as they desire. The language is always used in context so that children can see it used. They learn the language to go shopping, to go into cafes and buy a meal and so on, often through play.

Wicklewood participates in the international scheme run by the British Council which encourages children to learn more than one language. They do lots of email links with schools in Europe enabling children to find out more about the lives of children elsewhere. One such link looked at playground games and the children were fascinated to discover that games such as ‘The farmer’s in his den’ were played as far afield as Poland and Germany.

Some children take part in the nationwide annual Junior Language Challenge. Last year seven children learned Polish for the first stage of the competition; then they learned Mandarin Chinese. The three children who reached the finals of the championship studied Swahili in their spare time. All three languages focused on the acquisition of verbal skills such as telling the time, greetings, going shopping, making meals. It is an IT-based scheme. Each participating child is given a CD made by a native speaker and the children have to learn the languages in their own time. Despite this commitment, the children find it very entertaining and enjoy taking part.

Newbury Park Primary School, Ilford
Newbury Park has adopted a very different approach to language learning which is proving extremely popular with both children and teachers. It is also succeeding in improving community relations and widening knowledge of different cultural backgrounds. It operates a ‘language of the month’ policy.  The mixed-race school contains children from over 40 different nationalities – all speaking different languages. By learning something of those alterative languages, it encourages children to appreciate the cultures of their friends as well as to communicate in their languages. This gives children an opportunity to communicate in a different language each month.

All 700 children in the school, from Nursery to Year 6, as well as their teachers, participate in the scheme. Children as young as four are encouraged to learn some basic words in that month’s language. It aims to highlight the value of all languages. Each month, one pupil becomes the ‘language expert’ recording words and phrases for everyone to learn and giving an insight into their culture.

Language of the month resources have been made available on CD-Rom and on the school website. This has encouraged other schools in the borough to follow suit. Inset sessions have been run for local colleagues looking to adopt the scheme and there has been interest as far away as Denmark. The project was awarded a European Award in 2005, as well as a London Turkish Radio Community Languages prize.

Junior Language Challenge

This article first appeared in Primary Headship – May 2007