New funding for MFL – second hand fairy dust

 

So the present Government has decided that we need more MFL teachers in secondary schools.

So in their wisdom they throw some money at the problem. Just to whet your appetite..

“As a lead school, you can apply for up to £30,000 funding for teacher subject specialism training in MFL. This can help you address workforce challenges to support the English Baccalaureate (EBacc).”

But please click on this link. Buyer beware.

https://www.gov.uk/guidance/teacher-subject-specialism-training-funding-for-schools#modern-foreign-languages-mfl

Good idea you may think. Let me just remind anyone who is interested that this is a crazy case not just of reinventing the wheel, but trying to fit high end cars with bicycle wheels and just for good measure puncturing them before they are tested!

It is very hard to learn a language to such a level that you feel confident and competent to teach it in Key Stage 3 and or to GCSE. Let’s not involve ourselves with A level just yet..

Many will agree that even if you learn the rules of the language – grammar, vocabulary and the rules of pronunciation – to teach it with confidence is a very tall order. I think most of us would agree that in order to feel really confident in front of a class you need to have spent some substantial time in a country where the language is spoken.

We know that post University this can prove impossible once people have career and family commitments. So what do we do? How do we teach a language to adults to ensure that they can then teach it at KS3 and KS4?

It is a problem that successive Governments have grappled with. And frankly the grappling has got us nowhere. Why? Not because it cannot be done, given the right conditions but because Ministers and those who advise the DFE just do not listen and constantly want shiny new toys. They refuse to look at what has gone before and build on the past.

I do know a little of that on which I pontificate – for once. For 2 years I taught the Subject Knowledge Enhancement course in French for trained and qualified Spanish and German teachers at UCL Institute of Education. These teachers were the best groups imaginable as you can see – all linguists, passionate about languages, experts in MFL pedagogy and self -selected. They were a joy to teach. But even they found it difficult to sustain momentum when faced with parents’ evenings, extra marking, poorly children, lots of travel on dark cold evenings and rainy Saturday mornings. In my opinion these initiatives often do not work simply because teachers are too tired to learn a language after school, on the odd Inset day here and there or during their holidays.

But anyway the present Government then cut the funding for SKE courses. Clearly wanted something new.

My main concern though is that in last few years the following initiatives were funded at great expense through public monies and through the DFE by firstly Labour, followed by ConDems and most recently Conservative administrations

  1. Linguistic Upskilling modules and courses for primary teachers in French, German and Spanish
  2. Language Improvement courses for primary teachers in French, German and Spanish
  3. Language Improvement through TSAs (Teaching School Alliances)
  4. Language Improvement through LSEF (London Mayor’s Fund)

1 and 2 were fully adaptable for secondary teachers , especially reasonable linguists wanting to improve their language skills. They were written in forensic detail, and widely trialled and evaluated. National training conferences, a carefully worked out training trainers’ model and huge excitement.

But they hardly saw the light of day! Because the ConDems closed CILT –  the National Centre for Languages and sold it – I believe – for a song to CFBT who received a massive £3.5 million as a result of a successful bid to the DFE to continue the work as part of a programme in working with TSAs. Actually the incoming Government we were told told CFBT that it should forget about the original Linguistic Upskilling modules as they were written under Labour…spiteful? foolish? a scandalous waste of public monies. Not to mention the time we wasted in changing logos and nomenclature.

So the former CILT team at CFBT produced a fantastic set of even better modules that could be used for improving the language skills of both primary and secondary teachers. Again widely trialled, evaluated and very much valued by teachers. But just as these were launched CFBT decided that actually they were not that keen on keeping the CILT as the funding from the Bid had come to an end. So these modules were mothballed. What a waste!

And let’s not forget about Specialist Language Colleges who also had a remit to develop the language skills of their staff. Those seem almost to have been forgotten.

And now we have another knee jerk reaction. 

Based on my experience I have some questions

  • Who will write the materials to ensure coherent national or even regional training?
  • Who will do the training?
  • Will there be supply cover for trainers and teachers to be trained?
  • Who will ensure quality and consistency of training and resources?
  • How many hours will it take to improve teachers’ skills?
  • Will there be any residential periods abroad? If so at what time of year? Term time or school holidays?
  • Who will ensure that numbers trained match regional/national needs?
  • What kind of level are teachers supposed to reach? Common European Framework would suggest at least B2 as in all other European countries.

So why not look again at these materials and programmes? Hardly used and in mint condition. Because someone, somewhere does not like what has gone before as it was not dreamed up and produced by them. Much better to waste oodles of money in a period of economic austerity by starting all over again.

Based on experience of working with MFL teachers at all levels I would say that this latest scheme may well undermine the underpinning philosophy of good MFL teaching that the “Target Language should be the main means of communication in the classroom.” Just as we all acquire our mother tongue by listening, repeating, manipulating, making mistakes, gaining confidence and self -correcting, our learners need a learning environment that allows them to grow in this way. I have seen many lessons where if the teacher does not feel confident in speaking the language then they revert to talking about the language in English and explaining in far too much detail and for far too long “the rules.” Pupils get little chance to practise and play with language as the teacher does not/can not demonstrate with confidence and accuracy just what it takes to speak in this funny tongue!

One last question: how long would it take a clarinet teacher to learn and teach the violin?

Steve Smith – one of my favourite bloggers gives an excellent outline of many other concerns here. Please read.

 

http://frenchteachernet.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/dfe-desperate-for-language-teachers.html

 

 

 

Fact or fiction? My response to John Bald

I read with interest this article and can do other than respond to John’s sweeping and mistaken assertions. I comment with confidence and I hope knowledge and expertise on the MFL component of this article. Maybe others more knowledgeable than me would like to comment on the phonics component? I am genuinely interested.

My comments and questions to John are in bold – just in case there is any confusion about who is saying what!

Shortly after I started teaching, in the early seventies, a deputy head told me, “You become a teacher in order to change society.”  I had in fact become a teacher, in a serious way, in order to teach people to read, after finding that a pupil who had bunked off my lesson couldn’t read, and that nobody was doing anything about it. The deputy’s comment, though, sums up the main difference between Conservative teachers and our opponents. We are interested in teaching people and maximising potential, while they want to mould society in an image they have created.

Nonsense. This is unfounded; it is a sweeping generalisation that is hugely insulting to thousands of teachers who are not Conservatives

Most are to the left of what might still be called mainstream Labour, and, like Michael Rosen, support Corbyn.

Once again nonsense! How can you know this? Where is the evidence? I do not support Corbyn and know few teachers who do.

His Momentum organisation, in effect a rebrand of Militant, is reminiscent of many such networks in education, including a particularly sinister one called “The Campaign to Change Education Through Teacher Training,” of which more in a later piece. Anyone wishing to follow this up in the meantime should read Professor Geoff Whitty’s presidential address to the British Educational Research Association from 2005, downloadable here.

Totally mischievous  misinterpretation  of Geoff Whitty’s work.

Please explain what you mean by “sinister” and provide us with evidence not hearsay.

The problem is endemic across the English-speaking world.  Professor Whitty has been influential in Australia and was this year awarded a fellowship of the American Educational Research Association. From our viewpoint, his effect on education, like that of the Institute over which he presided, is negative. Dr Colin Christie is currently its head of PGCE in languages. This link to his approach to teaching foreign languages shows what I see as basic misconceptions of the process of language learning. The piece contains a link to his thesis.

Dr Christie is a highly respected academic who has an excellent record in teaching languages in challenging schools, achieving excellent academic results from children and in raising standards. He is widely regarded as an inspirational and highly practical teacher trainer who understands schools, teachers and children and as a profound and clear thinker. His track record is second to none at all levels. Your link is another wilful misinterpretation of his work. Maybe you would like to compare Colin’s achievements with your own track record of getting excellent results in whole class teaching and in successful senior leadership and management experience in schools and HE?

I recently gave on Conservative Home an account of my alternative, which involves clearing the fog, presenting things in a way that children understand from the beginning, and then practising. I had helped a teacher with a reading problem in her class, and she asked me if I could help her daughter, who was struggling with GCSE French. Here is a brief note of what happened:

A bright pupil was being “taught” French by the current method of exposing her and her classmates to language they didn’t understand, having them copy things out, and making them try to learn everything parrot fashion. These practices could be calculated to prevent the formation of neural connections, and hence understanding. They were very effective – this bright young person was in distress and could seen no way forward.

I’d helped her mother, a primary teacher, with a reading problem in her class, and she asked me for help with French. In just three lessons over the internet, I showed her daughter how French spoken and written language work, how and why they use grammatical markers that we no longer use in English, and how to use the shared features of both languages. I introduced some features of French usage that went beyond the obvious, but always with full explanation. Languages are human constructs, with human weaknesses as well as strengths. We say we have other fish to fry, whether or not we fry fish, and the French that they have other cats to whip, though I’ve never seen a Frenchman whip a cat. The goal was to bring her fragments of knowledge together to build understanding, and so to give her a degree of control. I’d forgotten all about it until she sent me an email on Thursday night, thanking me for helping her get an A.

Laudable but with one child? Would you be prepared to try out your methods with whole classes across the secondary age-range in any comprehensive school in the country for at least a term, on a full timetable 5 days a week?

Back to where I started, with reading. I offer free help with reading problems, over the internet if necessary. My approach involves explaining, in terms a child can understand, how spelling works in English, and how it has developed. Its basis is in the representation of sounds by letters – phonics – but this is complicated, first by the Norman invasion, which flooded English with French, and then by historic shifts in pronunciation, including shortcuts,  that have removed spelling from spoken forms. One current pupil is an eight-year-old who had been completely unable to read six months ago, and whose problems with speech made me wonder if we were going to succeed or not.

After working hard on Ruth Miskin’s Ditties from Read Write Inc, we moved to Burglar Bill, which, yesterday, he had forgotten. The best I had to hand was Mrs Christmas, in which the letters in the words of the title do not tell us all we need to know in order to read them.  I explained the origins of Mr and Mrs and the contraction of Christ – Mass  to Christmas. The first page included several variations on basic phonic patterns, each of which I unpacked and explained, using my normal technique of working on a word similar to that which the child has misread, and then returning to it after the pattern has been understood. The pupil returned to the text and read it correctly. I always make a note of all the words we work on, and I gave this to his father so that he could practise them with his son over the week.

His parting comment was “It’s given us hope.” Not “You’ve”, but “It’s” – the teaching and not some personal attribute of the teacher. Anyone can do this, and I’m happy to show them how, pro bono.  If you’d like a nice starting point for a class, try this lovely animation of the Bayeux Tapestry. For a fuller account of the development of English spelling, try David Crystal’s Spell It Out.

John – I will forever defend your right to say what you think, but please check your facts. And a little humility never goes amiss

 

 

 

 

What is tradition?

Despite all my reservations I decided to “do Twitter” some time ago. I am totally surprised that it provides such a great virtual community both professionally and personally. Though the two often merge. As in real life. That is not to say that I agree with everyone and everything and they certainly do not always agree with me. But that is life and freedom of speech and freedom of belief are at the heart of life. As long as we all have the right to disagree and challenge and to make our voices heard and to be kind and tolerant and respectful.

Starting a blog has been a great surprise  – so many people reading it in the first place, agreeing and disagreeing but actually whichever way you look at it, giving me the time of day.

The thing that has surprised me most is that I sometimes upset people. I do not set out to do this and I never post anything that I would not talk to someone about face to face – ideally over a cup of tea and a piece of Victoria sponge. Of course 140 characters is limiting and it is easy to inadvertently get things wrong. If that happens I am quick to apologise. Sometimes with humour – youngest child syndrome never goes away!

But last weekend I posted a tweet that lead to a bit of a Twitter spat involving quite a number of people. My instincts, because I can also be a bit of a wimp and I was full of birthday Victoria sponge, was to let it go. But the writer of the original blog and some of her followers seemed genuinely interested in what I had objected to.

Here is the original blog

http://conservativeteachers.com/2015/10/16/heather-fearn-why-im-a-conservative-teacher/

So I waited, thought and reflected. Knee jerk is not good.

The original blog seemed to me to imply that many, many schools – and I suspect state schools though to be fair these are not actually mentioned – were the focus here but I may be wrong – are more or less devoid of tradition/s. I assumed state schools only because 93% of our children are educated in them…..And that this parlous state of affairs has been brought about by left wing radicals who do not want our children to enjoy the richness of fantastic traditions. This are the quotations that lead me to my judgements about this article.

“Left wingers railed against privilege while stripping schools of those very features that gave richness and worth to school communities.

“There is open rejection of the wisdom that led to the teaching of subject disciplines, valuing knowledge for its own sake, handing on the thoughts and ideas that make us civilised, make us human.”

“Educationalists in their ivory towers casually dismiss rigorous academic teaching as well as the sports days and prize-givings as elitist.”

I am surprised that any one really thinks that left wing radicals whoever they are ( I have never met one but I do know lots of deeply caring, sensible and traditional left wing people – and lots of deeply caring, sensible and right wing people should anyone be interested)  have that much influence in how schools run their traditions. So I thought that I would just point out what I know to happen in thousands of schools across the country in terms of traditions. The things that give children pride in themselves, their school, their families and the whole community. The things that are open to everyone and often involve everyone and go way beyond the taught curriculum. it may be an eclectic mixture but here are some:

Choir, orchestra, debating society, gospel choir, swing band, clubs of all sorts from chess to fishing, too many to list, annual Eisteddfod (from Wales despite having an  Irish name!) sports clubs, teams, school productions, the Christmas plays, nativity and otherwise, PTA activities, reading groups, brass bands, carol concerts, November 11th two minutes silence, hockey, cricket, football, netball, rugby tournaments…

I could go on and on but I just want to maybe get people to think about we mean by “tradition” and that we have to embrace new traditions as these are all part of our society. When I was an LA adviser I loved being invited to Diwali celebrations, nativity plays, world culture and Language events TAFAL (Teach a Friend A Language) one of the best new traditions EVER bar none. Contact me if you want to know more! I had no idea of the voting patterns of staff in these schools and would not have wanted too. But they were all immensely  decent people and visionary leaders. I use the term leaders for all teachers in this case. Leading by example not by political whim or education fashion of the season.

Actually I rather liked the opening paragraphs of Heather’s blog and was completely taken aback when what had started as a description of a seemingly very lovely tradition turned into an attack on “left wing educationalists in ivory towers” wanting to destroy young people’s aspirations and deny them great experiences.

So what I objected to was what I perceived to be a somewhat accusatory tone and that the writer was making assertions that in my experience are simply not true. What was the evidence base for all of this? I know where and how I have seen all that things that I mention actually happening – from my own school days to now.

I, and I suspect most of us love traditions. Although there are some we don’t like and don’t want to or do not have the capacity or in my case the talent to take part in personally – I really don’t like Bonfire night and I cannot do Irish dancing as I am so clumsy.

I hope this answers some questions. If it does – great. If not we will have to agree to differ but at least we have had an open and I hope courteous exchange.

You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone

Over the summer we had the usual hand wringing about poor exam results and the decline in entries for Modern Languages. As always some of this handwringing came from the very people who have taken away – some would say have wantonly destroyed, I cannot possibly comment –  a huge raft of support for language teachers across both primary and secondary education. I toyed with the idea of an open letter to Nicky Morgan and a number of people told me what a good idea this was.  But would she take any notice? A bit of me feels there has to be a better way. A way that will have clout and not just seem grumpy.

Last week I was intrigued to see that suddenly, in a time of austerity and in the face of vast cuts to schools’ budgets, our Chancellor found £10m to support the teaching of Mandarin. Now I have nothing against the teaching of Mandarin. Some months ago I wrote this piece for School Week in which I make my views clear.

http://schoolsweek.co.uk/wanted-home-grown-teachers-of-mandarin/

£10m is actually a drop in the ocean to do a really good, replicable and sustainable job on the teaching of Mandarin. Or would be if we were not in a time of austerity and Heads were not having to make teachers redundant, no longer fund Foreign Language Assistants and make choices that may well impact negatively on the life chances of their pupils. And it is far, far more than is going into supporting MFL teaching.

What I really want to do is just to remind readers of what has been lost to the world of language teaching. Lost because it would appear that certain Ministers and others close to Ministers had a personal dislike of what thousands of languages professionals across primary, secondary, FE and HE saw as sensible, well researched and practical support. Support for teachers that had a positive impact on Languages Teaching, research, pedagogy and most importantly engagement, motivation, take-up and exam results. None of the work was politically biasied and had been produced under both Labour and Conservative administrations over 5 decades.

All of this work was funded with public monies – £millions – carried out by teachers for teachers. It seems to me scandalous that the present government has adopted a scorched earth policy. That it has taken away from teachers and learners well crafted and internationally recognized support systems. The DFE is continuing to support 9 regional projects but the sums are small and the time frame short. There may even be some totally unnecessary reinventing of the wheel going on? This is not about CILT. Life moves on and times and need change but it is about the destruction of what was good and the idea that just because a previous government created “things” that these “things” must at all costs be destroyed! Scary! Some of these resources may have need culling or updating but actually not that many as we had got rid of the less usable stuff on a regular basis in ensuring that everything in the public domain was of exceptional quality.

So what has been lost?

A National Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research – Yes, CILT the National Centre for Languages (also known as the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research) was ahead of ResearchEd (and I love these people!) in making the links between academic research, action research done by teachers in schools and classroom practice

The national resource library with precious thousands of precious texts – though rumour has it that it lurks somewhere in the depths of a Cambridge Library..maybe we could be told the answer?

The secondary websites full of thousands of resources to support MFL teaching in secondary schools and Post 16

The Primary Languages Training Zone – thousands of film clips and CPD materials to support primary language teachers. Many of whom are not specialist linguists and were using these resources to merge their excellent understanding of primary pedagogy with sound language teaching

Hundreds of well researched, well crafted and easily usable materials designed by teachers for teachers to support transition in languages

Language Improvement materials in French, German and Spanish to support primary teachers foreign language skills

A fantastic phonology module to teach non-specialist teachers and thus their pupils accurate pronunciation in French, German and Spanish

A virtual home for all language teachers, state and independent

Real links to and between ITE, HE and languages

A comprehensive national and regional “training trainers” programme so that schools would not need to spend money on Consultants! Good financial sense this one just in case anyone is worried about money.

And the above were just the tip of the iceberg!

Many people have made various efforts to salvage some of these materials but it is an impenetrable task.

Of course there is much good work still going on. ALL does what it can with limited funding but so much depends on goodwill and time given freely.

Brilliant individuals such as Janet Lloyd http://www.janetlloyd.net/

and Clare Seccombe http://lightbulblanguages.co.uk/

are remarkable and share everything they do via their websites.

The Ensemble Languages project funded until April 2016 by DFE is doing great work as are other funder projects but this is short term!

http://tscouncil.org.uk/ensemble-languages-project/

So new money for Mandarin looks to me a little suspect. And isn’t it interesting that those quoted in the national press about how marvellous this is have never had to teach languages on a tight budget, lose a Foreign Language Assistant, advertise and re-advertise for a Head of Languages or make staff redundant in a choice of what their school can offer in the way of languages.

As one of my Twitter friends @nicscho  put it – and she is not a language teacher – “seems to me like the educational curriculum is now a bargaining tool in trade & business deals. Whatever next?”

I have just one question for Nicky Morgan.

Can you at least consider finding a way of language teachers having easy access to all of those materials which are free of political bias and would help teachers to help children and young adults to love language learning? It would cost little or nothing. Certainly not even the tiniest fraction of £10m.

 

We’re doing the pluperfect today. Can’t wait!

I find myself in an odd position nowadays. Having spent my entire career teaching languages or working with languages teachers and loving my job I seem to be highly critical of what is going on currently in the world of languages teaching. in fact one tweeter recently asked me if it is because I am monolingual! So I will just restate my position

I believe in languages for all in both primary and secondary schools

I believe that every child must have the opportunity to learn at least one foreign language.

I would love this learning to continue up until the age of 16 but I cannot subscribe to this at the moment. I explain some of my reasons in my first blog that you can click on below.

My main concern is that languages in the UK really seem not to be producing young people who love to communicate with and get on with others from different countries and cultures. They start off with such enthusiasm and then, even if they do well at GCSE, they seem to want to walk away. It is easy to rehearse why this happens. It has been done many times. Here are some personal thoughts. This is not the fault of languages teachers who are some of the hardest working, creative and educationally caring people in the world.

My view is that the MFL “community leaders” and those advising the DFE- if there is such a thing nowadays – spend far too much time tub thumping, looking backwards and being “passionate about languages” and not nearly enough time looking at MFL in the context of how individual schools and general education function. Having worked closely with DFE during the CILT years I understand how Ministers and civil servants call the tune in many ways but I truly believe that the real influences on the future of language teaching should be brought to bear by school and subject leaders. These are the people who should decide what is in the best interests of their pupils. Is GCSE the right exam? Should it be several years of one language or should pupils learn less content in more languages? Are there some pupils who should legitimately be withdrawn for reasons known best to the school?

We have to stop the almost evangelical approach to language teaching that seems to have got a grip. It terrifies me as it can devalue other subjects and perpetrate the “languages are academic and therefore more important than other subjects” myth. In my experience many of the claims that we make for learning languages are exactly the same as claims quite rightly made by other subject teachers for their subjects. In curriculum planning and options choices it is what is best for the child that matters.

We can be awfully precious  too! I remember years ago a fantastic primary teacher made a mistake in a song that she had written for her pupils and posted on the Early Language Learning forum. She had used (please keep smelling salts at hand!)  la Portugal instead of au Portugal! The year 6 pupils were singing the song beautifully, they were loving it and learning French and the names of all the countries who were playing in the European Football Cup at the time. Within minutes the Spot a Mistake police were at work and posting to the forum…the great teacher was distraught and said “I am not sure I should be teaching French. I will never have the confidence to share anything publicly again.”  Great result. Not.

When a group of us met with a certain Schools Minister in a “thinktank” (misnoma if ever there was one) a few years ago he asked 2 questions

  1. Are they fluent by the end of Year 6?
  2. When do you teach the Pluperfect?

The above examples involving a primary teacher and a Schools Minister are for me at the heart of the darkness.

Our exam system (and some of our linguists)  values only perfection and makes us think that unless you can become fluent there is no point in learning a language and you should certainly not have the gall to speak it in public! So bad luck if you communicate badly but you get your message across. Strangely though we all praise the taxi driver abroad and the waiters who speak to us in minimal English and make us feel welcome in their country. Would they get GCSE in English as a Foreign Language?

WELL! I can swim. I will never win an Olympic medal but nobody makes me feel ashamed of the bit that I can do or the way I do it. For me asking us all to be fluent is the equivalent of saying that unless we have a chance of winning the gold medal it is not for us. And we must never, ever pretend that we can speak the language, this would be audacity of the highest degree.

I know that there are really good and influential people in the world of MFL who feel the same and who like me have strong views on how languages need to change and how we have to rethink the agenda. None of this is  politically radical but I simply know that we have to ditch some of the past and be realistic and not sentimental about the future. This is not about lowering standards but about removing the fear of speaking another language.

My final point for this blog is that I rail against the idea that comes from some MFL bods that those who do not speak a modern language are culturally deficit! This is arrogant nonsense. If it were true then many of my friends and family – clever, cultured, intelligent and knowledgeable and truly decent people would be culturally deficit. Truth is many of them are far more cultured in other areas than me – I am the person who just happened to be good at languages! Thank you Mrs Phillips, Mrs O’Hara and the Bertillon family! And they, the musicians, the artists, the sportsmen and women, the designers and others know what my reaction would be if they were to suggest that I am culturally deficit because I am simply not as good as them at drawing or playing an instrument or ballet or gymnastics.

 

 

 

 

When will my hovercraft be full of eels? Languages for all and the EBacc. Let’s just look at what might be the consequences.

Having a very smart new computer I no longer have an excuse to put off my long promised blog. The problem is I know that I have to be brief otherwise no-one will want to read. So I am going to start by putting my head above the parapet and share what I think are some worrying aspects at what is happening in the world of language teaching in England at the moment.

I believe in languages for all at both primary and secondary school

I do not believe in GCSE for all. This is quite a different animal.

Like many I had hoped that the new GCSE in languages would be fit for the 21st century and the young people who want to use a language for practical as well as academic purposes. In my opinion the new GCSEs are backwards looking, unclear in purpose and now rooted in a retrograde approach to why and how we learn languages. I am not even going to begin to look at the alarming lack of the use of modern technology in the new GCSEs. There are far better people than me to do this amongst the mfltwitterati. I am going to focus on just a few of the things that worry me most, why I think these have come about and what may be the consequences.

If we really are committed to languages for all then our main areas of focus must be:

  1. language teaching that is right for all
  2. assessment that allows all learners to show what they can do rather than penalise them for what they cannot do

In the new GCSE learners still have to do some really bizarre things. Let’s look at listening exams. Yes they are still built around the disembodied voice i.e. the tape recorder by any other name, in which the listener has to pick out certain details and avoid the occasional and deliberate red herrings put in by the exam writers pour s’amuser? Ha ha that’ll catch ’em out! They hear lourd. I bet some of them won’t know it’s about a heavy lorry but will think that it is something religious. This actually happened in one exam paper when I was still teaching! Our department complained

In my opinion this type of listening test is completely unfit for purpose. Surely listening is part of a conversation usually face to face or even on the phone in which participants are aware of the context? Or even better why can’t we have a listening exam that is a DVD of people talking? The GCSE student can then work out the context, see the person, look at the body language and facial expressions. All massive clues in real life communication.

However we have been told for decades that this is simply too expensive. Well I am prompted to paraphrase; “if you think great testing in language learning is expensive then try bad testing.” We all know the cost of this. And so much research has shown that students hate listening to the tape recorder or computer sound system. So alien.

And as for the newly introduced translation tests! How high am I on this (dead) horse?

Translation into and out of the foreign language went out with O level. I remember post A level sleepless nights when I was convinced I had failed because I did not know the French for “a clearing” or the English for le perron. But in this new(ish) century pupils will once again be obliged to translate both into the foreign language and out of the foreign language into English. Now I have no problem with translation as a teaching activity and we can actually make it enjoyable. But in my opinion it has no place in GCSE exams.

What worries me most is the backwash effect that translation and old fashioned disembodied listening will have on language teaching and learning from Year 7 onwards. A strange and unwelcome move away from authenticity and a leap into the “my hovercraft is full of eels today and was full of eels yesterday and will be full of eels tomorrow” school of language teaching!

So let’s really look at why this has happened. Who has advised on this new curriculum which may set many up to fail? Why was the Languages Ladder in which thousands of pounds of public monies were invested and which was about motivating and rewarding all learners and raising standards in achievement and attainment so gleefully abandoned? Why was the Language Diploma welcomed at all 3 levels by teachers, HE and employers abandoned? What about other alternative qualifications?

If the languages community is happy and some may even be jubilant – their job here is done – that languages are a key feature of the EBacc in the form of GCSE then we are subscribing to the legacy of languages as an academic discipline for some and not as a communication  tool that should make all learners see the world beyond their immediate horizons.