1 Primary languages

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Primary languages
Past and present
This chapter discusses:
developments in language teaching in England from the early 1960s
the landmark ‘French from Eight’ scheme conducted by Burstall et al. and its
impact upon subsequent schemes
the National Languages Strategy and its implications for primary practitioners
the current picture in primary languages.
From Burstall to the National Languages Strategy
The ability to understand and communicate in other languages is increasingly important in our society and in the global economy. Languages contribute to the cultural and
linguistic richness of our society, to personal fulfilment, mutual understanding, commercial success and international trade and global citizenship. Our vision is clear –
we must provide an opportunity for early language learning to harness children’s
learning potential and enthusiasm; we must provide high quality teaching and learning opportunities in the world of travel and work; we must provide opportunities for
lifelong language learning; we must recognize language skills as central to breaking
down barriers both within this country and between our nation and others. This is
why we must transform our country’s capability in languages.
(Catherine Ashton, in Languages for All: Languages for Life – A Strategy for England,
DfES 2002b)
This national vision for lifelong language learning, defined by Catherine Ashton in
the National Languages Strategy (DfES 2002b), coupled with both the educational and
intercultural benefits it can bring, has evolved over a significant period of time. For a
full understanding of the time that it is taking for primary languages to become an integrated part of the primary curriculum when so many other countries have prioritized
early language learning, it is important to locate primary languages in educational developments over the past 50 years. The 1960s saw primary education – hitherto known
as ‘elementary education’ – gain prominence in the national awareness, emerging as a
‘major and largely distinct sector’ (Simon 1991). The structure of secondary education
was firmly in the spotlight with the gradual move towards ‘comprehensive’ education
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and in August 1963 the then Secretary of State for Education, Sir Edward Boyle, reconstituted the Central Advisory Council to ‘consider primary education in all its aspects
and the transition to secondary school’ (Simon 1991). It is interesting to note that
‘transition’ from primary into secondary education, which was to become one of the
key factors working against the introduction of modern languages into the primary curriculum, was already at this stage identified as an area of enormous importance across
the entire curriculum.
Earlier that year, Boyle had announced the launching of a ‘Pilot Scheme to test the
feasibility of starting French from the age of eight in state primary schools’ (Hawkins
1996: 155). This scheme followed large-scale initiatives in the teaching of both science
and mathematics ‘on the wave of the curriculum reform movement which had its
inception in the modernizing tendencies of the late 1950s’ (Simon 1991: 314).
Until that time, the study of modern languages had effectively been the preserve
of the grammar schools or the independent sector, with secondary modern education
lagging lamentably behind. Indeed, until the mid-1960s, ‘basic competence’ in a modern language had been a standard entrance requirement to university (Hawkins 1996).
As the global economy evolved, the rationale for teaching and learning languages began
to change. Stenhouse noted in 1975:
The origins of the schools’ interest in the teaching of languages lie in the
teaching of Latin (and to a lesser extent Greek), first as the lingua franca of the
mediaeval scholarly world and later as a ‘discipline to thought’ and for the sake
of classical literature. Modern languages were at first alternative disciplines for
thinking and are now increasingly seen in practical terms.
(1975: 12)
In 1963, the Nuffield Foundation commissioned a survey (Lazaro 1963) on the extent of
modern language teaching in State schools. It found that 58 Local Education Authorities
(LEAs) in England and Scotland reported that
a foreign language had been introduced or would be introduced before the
end of the session 1962/3, 200 schools in England and 80 in Scotland being
involved. However only eighteen of the 58 LEAs were providing support for
the teaching; in the other LEAs the impetus came from the schools themselves.
(Hawkins 1996: 159)
The Pilot Scheme therefore represented a major departure for national primary education, and inevitably then secondary education. Access to the study of another language
in the primary phase was being made available in the Pilot Scheme on an unprecedented
The Pilot Scheme: learning from the past
The undoubtedly extensive and comprehensive study conducted by Burstall and her
team from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s sought to ‘discover whether it would be
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feasible and educationally desirable to extend the teaching of a foreign language to
pupils who represented a wider range of age and ability than those to whom foreign
languages had traditionally been taught’ (Burstall et al. 1974: 11). The findings of this
study remain central to our understanding of how we can plan for a successful integration of languages into the primary curriculum – and the pitfalls we must avoid.
The main aims of the study were cited as:
to investigate the long-term development of pupils’ attitudes towards foreign language learning;
to discover whether pupils’ levels of achievements in French are significantly related to their attitudes towards foreign-language learning;
to examine the effect of pupil variables (such as sex, age, socio-economic
status, perception of parental encouragement, employment expectations,
previous learning history, contact with France, etc.);
to investigate whether teachers’ attitudes and expectations significantly
affect the attitudes and achievement of their pupils;
to investigate whether the early introduction of French has a significant
effect on achievement in other areas of the primary school curriculum.
(Burstall et al. 1974: 13)
The findings were presented in comparative categories: the primary stage and the secondary stage, during which pupils were tracked beyond the primary school. Burstall
found that attitudes towards modern language learning during both stages of the ‘experiment’ were ‘positively and significantly related to their eventual level of achievement in that language. Throughout the period of the experiment, pupils’ attitudes
towards learning French and their level of proficiency in the language were in close
association’ (Burstall et al. 1974: 234). Girls generally outperformed boys throughout
both stages of the Pilot Scheme, and those children with little expectation or aspiration of ever visiting France, or of securing employment in which French may be
required as a practical skill, showed little motivation. The findings also consistently
demonstrated a distinct correlation between achievement, attitude and social class,
with those children from a less advantaged background performing less well than those
from affluent backgrounds. Teachers’ – including headteachers’ – attitudes and expectations, were, not surprisingly, shown to have a major impact on the overall performance
of pupils. In terms of general literacy and attainment, the findings were reported as
Taken as a whole, the results of the general attainment survey do not indicate
that the introduction of French exerts any significant influence on achievement in other areas of the primary school curriculum. Variations in test performance were always accompanied by corresponding variations in the social
composition of the groups concerned and there were no indications of a major trend in either a positive or a negative direction. The evidence does not
lend support to the view that the introduction of a foreign language at the
primary level must inevitably retard the acquisition of basic skills, nor does it
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encourage the belief that teaching a foreign language to primary school children will necessarily stimulate the development of verbal skills in their mother
(Burstall et al. 1974: 42)
As Hoy (1977) points out, the research questions were formulated in the context of a
‘profit and loss account’:
The researchers confined their conclusions to a ‘profit and loss’ account . . .
without trying to answer the question ‘What are the conditions for success for
primary French?’ To have done so would have switched the conclusion from
the retrospective to the forward-looking, from the depressing factual statement
to the more inspiriting statement that future success was likely to result from
the establishment of identifiable conditions.
(quoted in Hawkins 1996: 162)
However, the researchers were unable to frame their conclusions in any context other
than ‘profit and loss’. Burstall is quite clear about this:
The purpose of the NFER evaluation of the teaching of French in primary
schools has been ‘to provide proper evidence on which to base a decision for
the future’: ‘The time for making a decision about whether a general advance
should be made toward introducing French into all primary schools will come
when the results of the formal evaluation are available, and plans can be made
for the future, using the lessons that have been learnt’ (Schools Council 1966).
It had always been made clear that the Pilot Scheme had not been set up to
establish whether or not it was possible to teach French in primary schools,
but rather ‘to find out the profit and loss of doing so’ (Schools Council 1966).
(Burstall et al. 1974: 241)
Defining feasibility in the context of education policy
The notion of ‘profit and loss’ can be linked directly to the notion of ‘feasible’ in
the original research question: ‘even if Burstall (1974) had urged the expansion of
primary French, the implementation of such advice would have been prevented by
financial constraints and by the acute shortage of primary teachers who are competent
in French’ (Hoy 1977, quoted in Hawkins 1996). Indeed, ‘resourcing’ – specifically in
terms of teacher knowledge and skills, training, equipment and materials remains one
of the key issues in the current debate.
It is impossible to state to what extent the notions of ‘feasible’ and ‘educationally
desirable’ were examined as separate issues, or indeed how these were precisely defined
in the context of ‘profit and loss’. Nor can any single reason for the rejection of the Pilot
Scheme be identified as overriding. Researchers in the field have identified individual
reasons for the rejection of the Pilot Scheme. Driscoll highlights, for example, the fact
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that ‘no substantial gain in later attainment at the secondary school could be demonstrated’ (Driscoll and Frost 1999: 1), while Hawkins (1996) asserts that the Pilot Scheme
quickly ‘ran out of control’ organizationally and suffered from a massive shortage of
suitably trained teachers, with no systematic, sustainable or time-appropriate training
or development programme in place.
Given its rubric, the conclusions of the evaluation were hardly surprising. The
Pilot Scheme revealed complex and wide-ranging implications for such an enormous
programme of curriculum reform:
appropriate training both in ITE and for in-service teachers
ability and/or willingness of the class teacher to teach modern languages
headteachers’ and teachers’ attitudes and assumptions
literacy and oracy
pupil motivation and attitudes
curriculum design and development
availability of suitable materials
integration of languages into the primary curriculum
transition from a primary programme of languages into secondary education,
particularly given the lack of parity in provision
primary pedagogy and language teaching methodology
choice of language.
It is then at this stage of the evaluation that the Pilot Scheme – and so too the continued provision of languages in the primary curriculum – would have profited from
further investment to examine ways of removing barriers, resolving organizational and
resourcing issues and, equally importantly, to build on and capitalize on those areas
identified as successful. Instead, it was halted, and 40 years later, the key issues in
the implementation of nationwide, sustainable programmes of primary languages are
largely the same. McLachlan (2009b: 201) comments:
Learning from the past, and thus identifying what needs to be in place to ensure successful curriculum innovation, is integral to the longer-term successful
outcomes of that innovation. In 1976, in a report written for the Council of
Europe, Peter Hoy, former HMI, outlined a series of conditions for, and obstacles to, success for Early Teaching of Modern Languages (ETML) programmes.
These included:
clarity of long-term educational aims and short-term objectives
an administrative framework to meet the following needs:
◦ financial support;
◦ teacher supply;
◦ teacher-support services to provide advice, supervision, initial and inservice training resource centres and information services;
◦ the need for continuity.
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co-ordination of modern language teaching with the rest of the primary
(Hoy 1976: 3)
Where these conditions are not in place, Hoy argued, ‘policy decisions may be
based on unsound assumptions, and resources may be dissipated in unsuitable
or counter-productive efforts’ (1976: 5).
These conditions are as necessary today and can provide a framework at school, local
and national level for establishing a successful model for primary languages teaching
and learning.
After the Pilot Scheme: moving towards a national
strategy for languages
While small pockets of interest in the field of primary languages remained after the withdrawal of funding in 1975, it was not until the Nuffield Languages Inquiry (2000), that
primary languages became once more the subject of educational debate. The Nuffield
team was tasked with looking at ‘the UK’s capability in languages and to report on what
we need to do as a nation to improve it’ (2000: 4), and this heralded a rapid development in the field of primary languages. The first significant development arising from
the Inquiry was the publication of the National Languages Strategy – Languages for All:
Languages for Life – A Strategy for England (DfES 2002b). The Strategy addressed national
concerns about the lack of both foreign language proficiency and cultural awareness
and understanding in England, and professed its vision of language learning as ‘a lifelong skill – to be used in business and pleasure, to open up avenues of communication
and exploration, and to promote, encourage and instill a broader cultural understanding’ (2002b: 5). Its most radical proposal, however, was the commitment to provide
access to a foreign language throughout KS2 by 2010.
However, the decline in numbers taking a foreign language to GCSE level has
itself become a matter of concern since 2002 when the requirement to study a foreign
language until the age of 16 was abolished, which has arguably rendered the success
of the primary languages initiative even more important. Recent attempts to ensure
schools meet targets for recruitment to MFL at post-14, new-style GCSE and 14–19
pathways have led to greater flexibility in language learning.
Of great import to the language teaching community, both at primary and secondary level, is the recent review of languages in the English curriculum conducted
by Lord Dearing (Languages Review, Dearing and King 2007) which recommends that
‘languages become part of the statutory curriculum at KS2 in primary schools, when it
is next reviewed’ (2007: 10). Thus, commitment by central government to the longerterm future of primary languages seems assured. It is also worth noting that subsequent
DfES strategies, particularly Excellence and Enjoyment: A Strategy for Primary Schools (DfES
2003), Every Child Matters (DfES 2004a) and the Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners (DfES 2004b) are explicit in their aims to promote the ethos and implementation
of the National Languages Strategy in primary schools, not only in terms of improving
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practical language skills, but also in terms of providing an enhanced curriculum and
learning experience for all children. Similarly, the links between literacy – embodied in
the National Literacy Strategy, which in 2003 became part of the Primary National Strategy – and foreign language learning, and how these may be developed and encouraged
to facilitate higher attainment in both, are also being explored and promoted.
Primary languages in England: the current
picture and key challenges
There are a number of important studies that together provide a picture of current
provision and progress towards ensuring the entitlement, see, for example, Powell et
al. (2000), Martin (2000), Driscoll, Jones and Macrory (2004) and Muijs et al. (2005).
Our own research indicates that successful long-term primary language teaching and
learning will require an enormous commitment from central and local government,
school leadership, and both primary and secondary practitioners. Learning conversations with Headteachers, teachers, teaching assistants, pupils and parents have enabled
us to identify the following issues.
Status and priority of primary languages
Primary languages remain somewhat of a movable feast in the primary curriculum, often being moved or cancelled altogether for extra-curricular or
other activities. This again compromises learning, and reinforces the perception of languages as ‘not a serious subject’.
Primary languages remain fairly low on schools’ priorities, mostly due to
perceived pressure to perform well in national testing. Some schools report
that the recent promotion of sports, music and drama initiatives seems to
have overtaken existing primary languages initiatives.
Timetabling language teaching and learning
Allocating discrete curriculum time for languages provision remains largely
problematic for a variety of reasons, but where frequent and regular lessons
are not provided, learning is compromised.
The National Languages Strategy recommends one hour a week of language
teaching and learning, and this does not have to be a single block of discrete
teaching. Many schools allocate as little as 20 minutes to languages, which
impacts severely upon pupils’ ability to embed language. Thus, progression
in learning is inevitably slow or even indiscernible.
The enormous diversity in time allocated to primary languages in schools
causes problems in planning for learning KS3 in terms of pupils’ prior knowledge.
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Teaching and learning
There is little awareness of what may constitute ‘high quality teaching and
learning’ in the context of early language teaching and learning.
Many teachers have not consulted the KS2 Framework for languages, and
are not applying it in their short-term or longer-term planning. Thus schools
continue to offer very diverse programmes of language teaching and learning
as they are not operating within a single framework of practice.
Enhancing learning across the curriculum and cross-curricular
approaches to language teaching and learning
There is as yet little evidence to suggest a systematic approach to linking
language learning with literacy, or other areas of the curriculum.
Many teachers remain unclear about how primary languages can support
learning across the curriculum.
Assessment policies are largely underdeveloped in schools, and this renders
capturing attainment data on a national scale problematic.
Embedding Assessment for Learning (AfL) in primary languages teaching and
learning is not current practice in many schools, even though AfL approaches
are used widely in other areas of the curriculum.
Many teachers are opposed to the notion of assessing attainment in primary
languages for a variety of reasons, including additional workload, lack of understanding of what reasonable ‘attainment’ is and their ability to capture it.
Many also feel that languages are essentially a ‘fun’ subject, and should remain de facto free of assessment.
Transition: progression and continuity in learning
Extreme diversity of provision within primary schools, and lack of coordinated planning with secondary schools, threaten both continuity and progression, and inevitably impact upon pupil learning outcomes.
Schools are aware of the importance of planning for languages in conjunction
with their secondary colleagues. However, they cite a number of barriers to
effective planning, including time and a perceived unwillingness on the part
of secondary schools to adapt existing KS3 Schemes of Work (SoW).
Some schools are unaware of the role of the Specialist Language College (SLC)
in the provision of specialist support staff, training, funding or teaching resources.
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Teacher attitudes to primary languages
Some teachers remain unconvinced of the potential for enhancing literacy
or oracy skills through primary languages, and view it as an unnecessary
distraction from core subjects.
Teachers’ lack of confidence, or unwillingness to teach primary languages,
are often directly related to their perceived or actual lack of subject knowledge.
While many teachers remain unaware of the intended goals of the National
Languages Strategy, they nonetheless largely support the inclusion of languages in the primary curriculum, though overwhelmingly because they perceive it as a ‘fun’ break from ‘real learning’.
Learning in international contexts
Schools are keen to ‘twin’ with schools in other countries, particularly via
e-twinning and videoconferencing (VC). They cite lack of support in these
initiatives, particularly in terms of funding, as key barriers to developing partnerships with other countries.
Building capacity and training
Current capacity remains negligible – given that ensuring a sustainable supply
of appropriately qualified and trained teachers is central to the eventual success of the strategy, there are clear implications for both CPD and ITE. Training programmes do not necessarily address a range of teacher competences,
such as understanding the role of both the subject leader and the subject
mentor, developing subject knowledge, acquiring skills in age-appropriate
language teaching methodology, understanding the scope of primary
Schools are not yet in a position to offer sustainable programmes of primary
languages programmes without recourse to outside specialists, who may be sourced either from commercial companies, local SLCs, local secondary
schools or other contacts. Thus, in many schools, current provision remains
at risk.
Where a single teacher is responsible for provision of primary languages across
the whole school, this can lead to tension among staff. There is also concern that teachers will become deskilled in other areas of the curriculum if
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they are to continue to assume responsibility for whole-school provision. Inevitably, this means that where teachers are not required to deliver primary
languages, there is no impetus for them to develop their skills to enable them
to do so.
The role of the primary languages subject leader is increasingly common
in schools, and is clearly necessary to maintain some form of consistency, though the functions of the role differs dramatically from school to
Many schools do not yet have any formal policy for the inclusion of primary
languages into the curriculum. Where primary languages are not part of the
School Improvement Plan, it is likely that the status and priority of languages
are very low. Where there is a structured primary languages policy in line
with the whole-school plan, languages programmes are likely to be more
successfully embedded.
Where the Headteacher has a positive attitude towards primary languages,
this is likely to enhance the profile of the subject in the school community.
Funding streams
Availability of, and funding for, appropriate materials and resources, are perceived by schools as very important, and would appear to be lacking on a coordinated scale. Furthermore, schools remain largely unaware of what funding
streams are available, and how to access them.
Reflect on the background to the development of primary languages in England,
paying particular attention to the reasons why the ‘French from Eight’ scheme was
unsuccessful, and what we as a teaching community might learn from this. Relate these to the points identified in the section. ‘Primary languages in England:
the current picture and key challenges’ on pp. 12–5, and with reference to your
preliminary observations in school, discuss as a group reasonable ways of promoting effective and sustainable programmes of primary languages teaching and
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We are now in a strong position to learn from the past and build on it to promote
effective and sustainable practice, and to ensure that primary languages will become
an embedded and valued part of an enriched primary curriculum. Facilitating structured and longer-term planning, defining reasonable and appropriate objectives, and
equipping our new and existing primary practitioners with the knowledge, skills and
resources will play a pivotal role in achieving that goal.