Foreign language teaching policy in primary schools: England

A brief history of language teaching policy in English primary schools.

The 1997 White Paper (see Gillard, Education in England) recommended that classes for L2 teaching and learning at secondary level should be set by ability (See Gillard, Education in England: a brief history). A few years later, the Nuffield Languages Inquiry (2000) looked at forign language teaching in schools and made 15 recommendations to improve L2 provision. These included designating languages a key skill (alongside literacy, numeracy and ICT), raising the profile of languages, and focusing on language awareness as part of the National Literacy Strategy “to bridge the gap between English, literacy and foreign languages”. The inquiry also recommended “an emphasis on transferable language learning skills and solid competence in grammatical structures, which assist the process of learning new languages” (recommendation 1.4: 84).

This Nuffield Inquiry was the first serious recommendation to implement L2 learning in state primary schools following the national pilot scheme of the 1960s (Burstall et al., 1974). It recommended “a ten-year target to provide an entitlement for all pupils to learn a new language from age 7, based on 10% of curriculum time, integrated with other subjects or taught separately” (recommendation 6.4: 89).

Two years later, the then Secretary of State for Education made the controversial announcement that L2 learning would be optional from age 14. The Languages Review of 2007 restored some balance by not only encouraging improved uptake in languages at secondary level but also by recommending provision of L2 teaching as a statutory subject at Key Stage 2 (KS2, ages 7 to 11)

Two major reviews of the primary curriculum followed, both reporting in 2009. The Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum, known familiarly as The Rose Review (2008), was commissioned by the government in 2008. The Cambridge Primary Review  (2010) was a university-led investigation begun in 2006. The former proposed six areas of learning to replace the existing subject-based curriculum and recommended that language learning be compulsory for all children at KS2 from September 2011 onwards; the latter proposed 12 aims and 8 domains of learning. The Rose Review was accepted by the then government, but immediately rejected by the incoming coalition in 2010 before its planned implementation.

The Cambridge Review appears to have been ignored by both the outgoing and incoming governments even though it produced a quite comprehensive report which included primary education policy since the 1960s, children's development, needs and learning, current practice in curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, standards and school organisation, and sections on teacher training, leadership and workforce reform, governance, funding and policy. "The bottom line: how good is English primary education and where is it heading?"

An official statement in 2010 from the newly named Department for Education outlined new proposed reviews and consultations, and clarified the coalition government’s position on primary languages: “The Government believes that language skills are important to the social and economic future of the country”, and yet added a qualification to the statement: “Any future funding will depend on the spending review which will report in the autumn, as well as on decisions about the status of languages within the National Curriculum”.

Public consultation on the proposal that the choice of language for the first L2 be restricted to one of seven languages revealed little support and resulted in an amended proposal to allow the teaching of any language (DfE, 2013b, 2013d). In a letter to Tim Oates about the national curriculum review, Michael Gove, the former Secretary of State for Education, put forward a prescriptive viewpoint on what L2 teaching should encompass:

The new foreign languages programme of study will require an appropriate balance of spoken and written language. Pupils must learn to speak in sentences, with appropriate pronunciation. They will have to express simple ideas with clarity. Pupils should also learn to write phrases and short sentences from memory. They should develop an understanding of basic grammar. And they should become acquainted with songs and poems in the language studied (p.4).

These developments, consultations and discussions led to the implementation in September 2014 of the primary MFL entitlement, making  KS2 statutory programmes of L2 study and attainment targets a legal requirement for the first time in English primary schools. The range of specific L2s widened to allow the teaching of any modern or ancient foreign language, with a focus on “enabling pupils to make substantial progress in one language”.