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Saturday, 16 February, 2002, 10:30 GMT
School changes: What do you think?
The government has announced targets which will introduce modern language lessons to all primary schools in England.
By 2010 every child from the age of seven upwards should be entitled to language lessons.
There will also be 200 more specialist modern language schools for secondary pupils, to be created in the next three years.
Other government plans could see high-flying students by-passing GCSEs and moving straight onto AS levels before the age of 16.
The new fast-track approach is part of the government's Green Paper on secondary education, which aims to give students in England greater freedom from the compulsory curriculum.
Are these proposals the answer to reforming the education system?
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
I believe that the way that young people in Britain are taught is in need of examination. The idea that all children should be taught a foreign language from an early age is wonderful, however is it practicable? It is still the case today in this country that many children advance to secondary school without being able to read English. How then are these children expected to learn another, secondary language, when the primary schools in which they were taught were not able to teach them their mother tongue? Children aren't being taught the basics well enough to provide a secure ground on which to build on, basics such as maths and English. It is unfair to ask teachers, and students to try and fit more into their days, when there obviously isn't time enough (or resources?) for what is there presently.
As for the option of dropping a language at 14, I think this would be a serious mistake as in the jobs market, those people who can speak more than one language are at a distinct advantage to those who can't.
However a major problem is that there are not enough MFL teachers as it is - are we expecting Primary teachers who in most cases are not trained to teach MFL to make up the difference?
Many studies suggest that language learning works best before the age of 10, so not starting it until secondary school is ludicrous. I would say that earlier is better, and that pupils should learn a second language as soon as they start primary school at age 4 or 5.
It would be nice to see a greater variety of languages offered too; there is more to the world than English, French, Spanish and German!
If only learning a foreign language was so easy! I believe there are two serious obstacles for the English-speaking world in learning a foreign language. First of all it requires more than one or two hours in a classroom each week. It needs a real exposure to the language concerned via TV, radio, newspapers, journals and actually having the opportunity to speak it. The second problem, related to the first is which language to learn? Whichever is chosen be it French, German, Spanish then it will be of limited use abroad. Learn French but that¿s no good in Germany etc. For the non-English-speaking world these difficulties are greatly reduced - if you chose a language to learn, that¿s easy - English. It is useful not just in the English-speaking world but in all other countries too. A German can speak to an Indian or a Japanese can speak with a Dutchman. In addition the foreign student can often enjoy a much greater exposure to English in his home country than ever a Briton can to a foreign language in the UK.
How will these new proposals support children with learning difficulties or those who are disaffected with education? Shouldn't the Government be targeting pupils who are under-achieving and helping to raise their standards rather than giving more to high achievers, thus widening the gap.
Simon Watkins, Wales, UK
Just who is going to teach these foreign languages? We already have a shortage of secondary sector language teachers.
The one thing that stands a chance of improving the quality of British education is a 3-5 year moratorium on government education initiatives!
Most of the comments on this debate relate to the changes in languages. I think the other changes are far more important.
Many English people seem to assume that if they go abroad everybody from the taxi driver to the checkout girl will be able to speak English. Why shouldn't a French, German or Spanish speaking person experience the same when they visit Britain?
I believe that if we started teaching our children about the languages and cultures of other countries at an earlier age, they would grow up to be more open-minded, less insular - qualities lacking somewhat in Britain in my opinion.
People should learn a second language like they learnt their native language - by listening and speaking. Children become fluent speakers long before they can read, write or understand the rules of grammar. The written word should not be introduced until a level of fluency is attained.
There's one thing you can say about government - it's not scientific. If it was, they'd give each new reform time to prove itself, but I suppose it's easier to constantly meddle so no one can pick out your particular reform to blame in the future. As for bright kids skipping GCSEs, isn't Labour supposed to be against selection?
All these people stating that we shouldn't have to learn foreign languages "because English is the world language" are out of their minds. Why do you think so much of the non-English speaking world doesn't like us? It's because we can't be bothered to learnt their languages! If we actually bothered to sit down and learn to be able to talk to foreigners in their native languages I'm sure it would make them much happier.
I think the moves are a step in the right direction. To say that languages aren't important as English is the dominant language is arrogant to say the least. However, another one of the Government's announcements was to allow less able pupils to give up languages earlier so that they can concentrate on more practical, work related subjects. I think that this is a good move as it allows them to focus on skills that might actually enable them to get a job when they leave school, rather than sitting purely academic exams which they're never going to pass. What's the point of teaching such pupils French when they can hardly read or write English?
Ian Liddle, England
Stop arguing - can't politicians of this country devise a system that works and stick with it?
I wake up to Radio 4 each morning, each day there is a new political debate - but where are the results?
Is UK a nation of whingers and non-doers?
To answer the question you ask - No. I don't think these proposals will reform. They will damage a system that is reeling from decades of ill-advised Government meddling, combined with chronic under-funding. Whether any of the proposals are good or bad matters little. They won't be delivered. For example, 200 specialist language schools in 3 years. How? Try recruiting modern language teachers for existing schools - it's almost impossible.
One good aspect is that "skipping" GCSEs by bright students would make the GCSE league tables pointless!
However those taking AS levels at secondary schools and then moving on to A2 at Sixth Form College will often face huge problems due to incompatible specifications (syllabuses). Instead it may be necessary to move year 11 students into sixth form colleges to do their AS-levels; but at what expense to their secondary schools?
Many of my colleagues in education predicted the problems of Curriculum 2000. These new plans house similar pitfalls - let's hope that they are better thought through! However a move to a 14-19 integrated curriculum has to be right and deserves support.
I am a part-time teacher, teaching 4 days a week. Since I was last in school I have counted four announcements by the Government relating to education viz engineering GCSE, leisure and tourism on the syllabus, fast-tracking pupils to omit GCSEs and language teaching from 7. With initiatives being launched at this rate is it any wonder that teachers feel over-stretched?
The way languages are taught in schools has much to do with the average Brit's linguistic incompetence. When I went to France as a teenager I found I was unable to hold even a basic conversation with a French person, even though I'd been supposedly learning French for three years. Why? Because we had spent two hours a week learning how to conjugate written verbs instead of actually learning to speak the language. Start kids off with conversational languages at primary school - then they will have a chance.
Instead of wasting time trying to modernise the education system with frequent so-called initiatives and radical reforms would it not be better for the government to concentrate its efforts on improving the resources and teaching standards within the actual schools. Would everyone not be grateful for some stability and consistency so everyone knew what each qualification was worth?
Another education minister, another education plan. Any suggestions for next year's vote winner? On no I forgot, next year it's the turn of the defence minister to change everything.
If the independent litmus test of these intermediate exams vanishes, so does an independent and objective means of identifying in good time the pupil's academic strengths and weaknesses. The abandoning of GCSEs for many pupils will be viewed as a clumsy attempt to lighten the load upon the beleaguered Edexcel exam body. This package of implausible proposals speaks of a panicking government tinkering experimentally with an education system that it is incapable of managing effectively.
Kenneth Fryde, United Kingdom
I think the government is spot on this time. With regard to the language issue, shifting the learning to an earlier age will certainly result in greater linguistic competence. As for opting out of GCSEs, I was a high flyer and felt that 50% of my GCSEs were just "fillers" and a waste of time. I think that the keener pupils should be given the chance to sacrifice some lessons and GCSE exams to get some genuine industry experience.
Paul C, England
I am a parent of two primary school children, and a governor of a primary school.
I think that language lessons in primary school are in principle a good idea, provided that:
S Munro-Crump, England
M Maguire, UK
Yes, English is the common language of our generation, but many countries in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe use German as their second language, and elsewhere, especially in the US and South America, Spanish is used. British children nowadays don't seem to receive decent educations. Perhaps if schools started teaching languages at an early age (and please, not just French!) the world might be a happier and more literate place!
Yet more tinkering! Is it time for a period of stability in education? What you learn is less important than how you learn. As far as useful stuff - maths, engineering, IT, teamwork, problem solving and science are worth more than another language.
Refreshing that the government has finally admitted that GCSEs offer no meaningful academic challenge to good students. The problem is - do AS levels?
Whatever changes have been made to our education system and its methods of examining, the quality of education has been flawed. When we had the bachelaureat system if the candidates just failed in one subject they were denied the opportunity to further their education.
Learning a foreign language is all about enrichment, and I totally agree with its inclusion in the primary curriculum. Just one question: how is this extra subject going to be fitted into the already bulging primary curriculum?
It worries me that education chiefs are thinking of letting brighter children by-pass GCSE and go straight to A-level. The difference between a GCSE and an A-level is huge - many children who do well at GCSE don't do so well at A-level, at least the first time round.
I think that this can only be a good thing. In the last years of school you want to learn more that is going to help you with your future career, such as child care, and on a recent trip to Paris my French learnt at school came in very handy. These proposals can only be good, but I also think that too much pressure is put on youngsters these days just to make the government's figures look good.
Andy Millward, UK
I have friends who tell me that the state
of foreign language education in Britain is
deplorable. In the US, I would say that
it is also deplorable, as well. The US is
truly an off shoot of the UK in this respect.
Why on earth should our schoolchildren be required to waste their time learning foreign languages when we already speak the global language, English? Surely these European ambassadors would be better encouraging schoolchildren in their own countries to learn English, rather than trying to shore up their own dying languages?
As a person in the United States, we often hear the same complaint of Americans not learning a foreign language. Whilst English is by far the world's lingua franca, it is not the only language. It cannot hurt but only help to encourage the study of other languages. Here Spanish has become a second language and many Americans are accepting it. Britain can promote the study of other languages whilst still promoting English.
We don't need to learn any other language. The world speaks English. Within 100 years, English will be the only language spoken anywhere. There will be no need for anything else.
I wonder at the government hypocrisy behind this proposal. They spend fortunes selling Europe to the UK public while reinforcing that peculiarly British element of xenophobia to schoolchildren that says if foreigners can't talk to us in English then we won't talk to them at all.
Why should we bother learning other languages when the majority of rest of the world can speak English? The accepted business language is English and the rest of the world should learn English.
Presumably the four European ambassadors expressed their grievances in English. I would rather see British subjects spend more time becoming proficient in the intricacies of their own language, than in fiddling around learning foreign tongues for the sake of political correctness. The English are notoriously bad at learning languages and they make no exception with their own.
Mick Deal, UK
If we adopted English as the common language of Europe then all countries in the Union would confer huge advantages. We would all be able to understand each other immediately without recourse to a half-remembered foreign language. We would save billions of Euros by removing the need to support a multitude of languages and as a group of nations, the EU would be able to compete on a more even footing with the other major economic blocks in the world. Imagine travelling from Athens to the Arctic Circle without being misunderstood through the careless use of some phrase book sentence. Joy would be unconfined and the kids would have more time to learn about mathematics and science.
This is a refreshing contrast to the debate about compulsory English lessons for immigrants. So what about compulsory foreign languages for emigrants? I must say I'm always pleased by the truly international mix of contributors that Talking Point attracts here and remain impressed and a little embarrassed at their command of my language. Learning another language can be only a good thing. The different view & appreciation it gives of one's own language is invaluable and can improve exam grades.
Given English is the global language, what language should English children learn in school? French? Useless unless you go to France all the time. What use would French have been for me living here in Finland? Put teaching time to better use and concentrate on other subjects, such as maths, science and (gasp) English, and just accept that the rest of the world is much better at speaking another language than we are - out of necessity. The only reason for learning another language would be so school children can order a burger when they go on an exchange trip to France, and the cashier will speak English anyway. Those interested in learning another language should go right ahead but it shouldn't be mandatory. Don't force something onto people that they don't need.
Learning English will let you talk to the majority of people on earth. Learning a marginal language like French or German lets you talk to 10% at best. This is why you will see a German and a Mexican using English as a common language. Kids can't be bothered to learn these marginal languages because it adds little to their abilities.
It was not the government that gave me the drive to learn French; it was the enthusiasm shown by my French teacher, Mrs Firth. Instead of laborious grammar and repetition, she thrilled me with stories of when she was young and learning French, the cultural differences, typical French life, etc. I couldn't wait to go on my first French exchange and from then on I was hooked. In the past there were always plenty of English children willing to give it a go. Now living in France, my neighbours are all looking for young English people to do language exchanges with their children, but to no avail. Every time I pass them in the street they ask "Have you found anyone Matt?" and I unfortunately have to answer "No".
As somebody who has struggled manfully with Italian for many years, one memory I have is having a conversation about football in a cafe in Calabria with a railway worker. He understood me and I was buzzing for hours. Try it out.
Contrary to popular opinion, not all foreigners DO speak English, and if you're only going to limit yourself to Ibiza and other places where most people ARE English, then you'll have a very grim experience of life. We're in danger of becoming a European laughing-stock as our neighbours watch us struggle to make our way speaking loudly and clearly to passers-by. And if you think it's difficult, just listen to any Dutch person - yes any - speaking English!
English has become the de facto language of the EU so why can't the remaining Europeans who aren't fluent in English, learn it? It would do wonders for European integration.
David Hazel, UK
Jonathan Kelk, UK
Unfortunately I left school with poor foreign language ability. Twice in the last decade I have suffered the stigma of redundancy and due to my inability to speak German or Spanish, I have not been able to take up certain jobs that I would otherwise have been suitable for. With the expansion of the EU and the economic growth of areas such as the Baltic, those who have a natural ability could perhaps study rarer languages such as Estonian as with less people speaking these languages their ability would be rarer and command a higher premium in a job search.
Peter Judge, UK
Pupils have a limited amount of time to learn an unlimited number of subjects. In a world where English dominates, it is best that they learn something enlightening and useful such as physics or geography than dying languages such as Welsh or French.
It is frankly embarrassing when on holiday abroad when I attempt to communicate in the local language only to find the natives speak English many times better than I speak their language. I recall an apocryphal anecdote about a company in receivership where a letter in another language had been dumped in a file because nobody could be bothered to try and understand it and it turned out to be an order big enough to have saved the company! To teach our children less about languages is to condemn them to a life of linguistic isolation.
As a speaker of three languages fairly well, and a couple of others not so well, I am increasingly annoyed by people who refuse to learn even the basics of a foreign language on the grounds that everyone speaks English. How are we supposed to be respected as a useful and valuable member of the world community if we can't be bothered to learn how to say hello to foreigners?
I expect there to be many messages with people boasting of how many languages they speak, but I'm afraid that you are the privileged few. There is no focus whatsoever on teaching languages as the British government clears them out to install yet more meaningless exams. English may be the major language of the world but it is rude and ignorant to expect everyone else to speak our language. It is a fault of the educational system. French and Spanish must be taught from a very young age. Not only does it make conversing easier, it also creates respect and companionship between countries. For the Brits there is the additional advantage of really feeling a part of this global village, rather than a nervous bystander asking "Parlez-vous anglais?"
Trish Auciello, UK
I have only ever needed to speak two languages - Cockney and English! That's always been enough to get me by.
We are failing badly on foreign languages due to a perceived superiority over all other countries. At least one foreign language should be compulsory from the age of seven upwards to school leaving age. This may help to go some way to improving attitudes to foreigners among some of our young.
Judging from the kind of language I hear from the teenagers on my bus, they should perhaps learn their own one properly first. But yes, learning languages is a very important thing. It's one's duty when travelling to at least try and speak the native language instead of speaking louder in English.
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