Primary Languages Policy: Step-change or stumbling block?

RiPL’s first webinar on 2nd July 2019 at 7.00pm was attended by 100+ participants. The webinar saw presentations from research, policy and practice and highlighted the importance of modern foreign language learning at and early stage in a child’s development.

RiPL webinar panellists: Florence Myles (Chair of RiPL), Bernardette Holmes (co-Chair of RiPL), and Clare Seccombe (Representative of ALL). Hosted: Hannah Gibson (University of Essex.

Bernardette Holmes discussed the policy landscape, particularly the extraordinary language paradox, as she called it, of finding ourselves in an increasingly multilingual society that for Anglophones is nevertheless becoming increasingly monolingual. She reminded us that the statutory requirement to teach all children a language from age 7 was about offering every child ‘liberation from insularity’, but that the greater degree of autonomy given to schools and the reduction of central and local government support have meant that provision across the country instead of being equitable has become patchy. Bernardette asked where we should have been after four years of equitable statutory requirement if it had been implemented as intended: What would we have expected to see in terms of local agreements primary-secondary with regard to choice of language and time allocation, what should we have expected to see with regard to children’s progress, and assessment, and what kinds of arrangements should there have been at points of transfer and transition?

Florence Myles spoke to the research position, discussing two aspects of the large body of research that has investigated teaching and learning of languages in primary school children: how younger children learn differently to older children, and the importance of motivation, in particular sustaining motivation across transfer. Florence explained that young children rely primarily on implicit learning mechanisms in middle childhood (ages 6 to 12), especially in the earlier phase, which means that for them to be able to learn effectively they need to have rich and plentiful input and to be able to actively engage with that input. The generally short amount of curriculum time allocated to languages in English primary schools makes it difficult for children to be able to do this. Florence pointed out that young children enjoy learning languages, and find it fun and motivating. In the second part of middle childhood, though, children develop more awareness about what they are learning and the progress they make. They begin to appreciate the intrinsic value of languages and why they might be important – or otherwise – to them as an individual. Ensuring that children remain positively motivated across transition through a continued sense of progress is crucial, as it can have grave implications for uptake at GCSE and beyond.

Clare Seccombe, a primary languages teacher representing ALL, also a language consultant and owner of ‘Light Bulb Languages’ began by explaining how the situation had changed since 2012 when there was much more funding and support available, for example with teacher training and up-skilling. Since 2014 there have been some grants to fund large projects but large-scale funding has not been available either nationally or locally, which has meant, for example, that primary schools who previously employed a specialist language teacher were not able to continue to afford their services. She listed considerations that need to be addressed: regular scheduling of lessons, assistance in choosing schemes of work and in developing progress levels, quality CPD, and improvement in transition arrangements: primaries try to make children secondary ready but are secondaries primary aware? Clare explained the importance of unity, and described the work of ALL and its hubs supporting teachers across all sectors.

There was a fantastic selection of questions from attendees which focussed on transition, CPD provision and training, motivation and time allocation (selected summaries of questions and participant interaction below). Unfortunately, due to time constraints, panellists could only answer a few, and we look forward to discussing many of them during future webinars, events, and on our blog in the coming months.

Newsletter Webinar Special

Primary Languages Policy: Step-change or stumbling block?

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Primary Languages Policy: Step-change or Stumbling Block?

What do you think?

Join Florence Myles, Bernardette Holmes, and Clare Seccombe

for a 60-minute webinar on the 2nd of July 2019, at 7.00pm

In 2014, teaching a modern or ancient language from the age of seven became a statutory requirement in primary schools in England.

This long-awaited status for primary languages was welcomed with enthusiasm by the profession and across civil society, but how far have we succeeded in implementing the primary languages policy?

Is primary languages policy a step-change or a stumble at the starting line.

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Help with research! – short survey and snowball sample

Calling all L2 teachers, L2 teacher educators, Second Language Acquisition researchers, and policymakers working in the field of L2 education: please take a minute to help with this short on-line survey. Completely anonymous.


From: Ernesto Macaro, Emeritus Professor of Applied Linguistics & Robert Woore, Associate Professor in Applied Linguistics, University of Oxford Department of Education.

Dear friends and colleagues,

We are currently working on a completely revised edition of ‘Debates in Modern Languages Education’, published by Routledge.  To make sure the book captures the real debates that are going on the field of learning and teaching second languages (L2), we are doing a small piece of research to elicit stakeholders’ views on this topic.

We are emailing you as L2 teachers, L2 teacher educators, Second Language Acquisition researchers and policymakers working in the field of L2 education.  We hope that you will be willing to complete a short on-line survey for us.  It will ask for a bit of background information about yourself, then ask for your view on a range of debates in the field of L2 learning and teaching.  We think it will take about 15 minutes to complete.  We would be very grateful for your help.

Please click on the link below, or copy and paste it into your browser, to access the survey:

Additionally, we want to use snowball sampling, to help us get the views of as wide a range of stakeholders as possible all around the world.

Therefore, we would be really grateful if you could forward this email to as many other L2 teachers, teacher educators, researchers and policy makers as possible, asking them to help out.

The survey is completely anonymous.

With many thanks in advance for your help,


Feeding the roots, not watering the leaves

RiPL White Paper calls for the DfE to create a National Taskforce for Primary Languages:

Recommendation 10: Create a National Taskforce for Primary Languages

The Research in Primary Languages Network (RiPL) calls for the DfE to set up a National Taskforce for Primary Languages (NTPL) to address the challenges inherent in fully implementing the statutory order to introduce the learning of modern or ancient language from the age of seven.

But why do we need a National Taskforce?  
We’re all aware that the experience of primary language learning will set the foundation for future language learning. If children are motivated at primary school, they’re likely to carry that motivation across to secondary school. If they enjoyed learning a language at KS2, felt they made progress, felt it was worth the effort, found it exciting and useful, they are more likely to look forward to further language learning, developing resilience and building on the ‘I can do this’ feeling. But we’re also all aware that primary schools face particular challenges of their own in implementing a high quality and sustainable curriculum for primary languages. These challenges are distinct from those facing secondary schools. Primary languages need – and deserve – a national focus of their own. Do you agree?

So what would an NTPL do?
A National Taskforce for Languages would address the challenges faced by primary schools, making professional development and school-led improvement a priority. The NTPL would recognise and draw on current expertise from across the country, providing access to central guidance and helping to coordinate high quality support for all schools.

How would it work?
The NTPL would provide a link between stakeholders and government. It would work with lead practitioners, head teachers and other partners, individuals and organisations with expertise in languages. This would include researchers, school networks, subject associations, cultural institutes and universities. Practitioners would be key.

Why now?
The creation of a National Taskforce for primary languages is critical right now to inform and support the work of the new
National Centre for Excellence for Language Pedagogy. This centre is funded by the DfE to take forward the recommendations of the MFL Pedagogy Review (2016) led by Ian Bauckham, to support their implementation in schools, and to strengthen language curriculum design and MFL pedagogy. There is one stumbling block – the Centre focuses largely on secondary schools and on the third and fourth key stages – what happened to support for the implementation of language learning from the age of seven? If primary languages are going to build the foundation of secondary language learning, surely we should feed the roots, not water the leaves? The DfE should consider as a matter of urgency the allocation of central funding to support primary schools in developing and implementing primary language learning? A National Taskforce for Primary Languages would provide the mechanism and expertise to make this happen.

If you agree, please give us your support!

The RiPL network is resolute in its efforts to put primary language learning centre stage. Feedback from all those involved with language learning helps to generate greater impetus – we need to know if and how we are making a difference.

Please tell us how RiPL is helping you? Have you read the White Paper? Do you agree with the recommendations? Have you shown the White Paper to your head teacher? Has the RiPL website, given you ideas, changed your thinking, helped in your practice, motivated you to make changes?

Comment button – top of the page – give us a ‘click’! 

Bernardette Holmes & Angela Tellier


White Paper Special

Storm Freya blows in the winds of change for language learning

Anyone following mass media and social media cannot have failed to notice the recent high pressure storm around language learning and teaching in schools. First came the BBC investigation, published 27th February, showing sharp drops in German and French being studied in schools. Branwen Jeffreys, Education Editor, reported that the BBC analysis showed drops of between 30% and 50% since 2013 in the numbers taking GCSE language courses in the worst affected areas in England.

BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday 4th March reiterated the message and broadcast the call from Baroness Coussins, Co-Chair of the APPG for Modern Languages, for a national recovery programme to address the urgent need to rescue language learning in Britain’s schools:

“A group of MPs and peers say that schools need to teach languages to pupils from age 5 to 18 if they are to reverse what they call a disastrous decline in language skills.”*

‘Disaster’ was also the subject of Eleanor Busby, Education Correspondent for The Independent: “Britain’s dwindling language skills are a disaster for the country and needs action, MPs warn

‘We need language skills to become the norm – not the exception’”

Current political uncertainties have heightened awareness of the impending crisis in language learning and pressure to take concerted action has been building up for some time. Writing in The Guardian on Friday 1st March, David Cannadine, President of the British Academy with the backing of all the national academies, called on the government to implement a national strategy for languages saying:

“Brexit Britain cannot afford to be laissez-faire about its languages crisis”

The question is not so much ‘What is happening?’ but rather ‘What can be done to reverse the decline?

Cannadine’s article offers a suggestion in its title: “National academies urge Government to develop national languages strategy”.

The British Academy, backed by the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences, and the Royal Academy of Engineering, has issued a call for action directed at government but also business, policymakers and social organisations.

Cannadine, believes that “Languages must be the wind in global Britain’s sails.”

Neil Kenny, Languages Lead at the British Academy is of the opinion that: “We need a genuinely joined-up national strategy for languages”

Catriona Seth, Fellow of the British Academy pointed out that: “We are a multilingual nation. We need to do all we can to value and nurture existing skills but also to ensure everyone in the United Kingdom, whatever their background or age, has access to opportunities to develop their knowledge and acquire new languages.”

Every child should have the right to learn a new language from the age of seven and make substantial progress, irrespective of their personal circumstances or the location of where they live. Achieving equity in language learning from the age of seven and developing a pedagogic approach which connects literacy in English, the new language being taught and any other languages spoken by children have been the long-held principles, forming the foundation of the RiPL Network. It is these core principles which inspired the RiPL Network to hold a Primary Languages Policy Summit, drawing together major stakeholders to discuss these and other key issues surrounding primary languages in England.

The Summit was held under the Chatham House Rule on Friday 23rd November 2018 at the British Academy. Key players in policy making and leading practitioners and academics from across the country discussed briefing papers circulated beforehand, position statements and presentations of current and best practice. The views and contributions of all the Summit participants were taken into account in elaborating a strategy to overcome some of the challenges currently faced by primary schools in delivering the statutory requirement for languages.

The resultant RiPL White Paper puts forward realistic recommendations to support the full implementation of primary languages policy. The recommendations are a call to action that involves many different decision makers, including teachers, school leaders, academics, professional associations, non-government organisations, as well as needing the support of central government.

Well, as the saying goes, “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good!” As the storm settles, all stakeholders must press forward to make sure that positive change comes about.

*To listen again go to the Sounds playback section for Radio 4, Today programme broadcast Monday 4th March from 6-9 am. The reference occurs from 1:36:22-1:36:29. (I.e. broadcast at 07.36 and 22 seconds).

Bernardette Holmes MBE Co-Chair RIPL