Since the mid-sixties, government policy on modern languages in state schools has been dominated by a series of quangos, notably the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research, founded by Anthony Crosland, the Schools Council and the Nuffield Foundation, one of the early megacharities which sought to influence policy rather than provide services.
Languages had been seen as a challenge in the move from grammar to comprehensive schools, as the new pupils to languages would not have the IQ or literacy skills to cope with the predominantly written methods then in use. The solution proposed by the late Professor Eric Hawkins, a former grammar school headmaster and leader of the new school, was "being tolerant of error in performance, rewarding comprehension and encouraging bilingual dialogue" (Why a Foreign Language for All, in Modern Languages in the Curriculum, 1981).
Meanwhile, Stephen Krashen in the US was arguing that languages were "acquired" rather than learned, and that teaching grammar was pointless. The fact that his evidence was based on a study of university students rather than school pupils did not matter – anything that could be presented as academic authority and supported the policy was grist to the mill.
The decline in language learning that followed these changes was immediate and sustained. By 1977, HMI found the state of languages teaching utterly chaotic, and demanded that some kind of order be restored. They have been lamenting ever since, and their latest full report, Modern Languages, Achievement and Challenge, details serious weaknesses in virtually every area of language learning, and most particularly in the 11-14 age-range, which is the only one in which languages are still compulsory.
Measured in terms of examination entry, the fall since the Labour victory in 1997 has been catastrophic, and so few pupils are now taking A level that the future supply of teachers is in jeopardy (My recent presentation on this at the Westminster Forum can be downloaded here.
It is fashionable to blame Estelle Morris for making languages an option for 14-16 year olds in 2002 (according to Wikipedia, she had herself failed A level French), but to me this is unfair. I was able to observe substantial amounts of language teaching immediately prior to this as an inspector, and it was so poor as to have a negative effect on the whole of the children's education. The legacy of Labour's quangos and theorists was not compulsory languages, but compulsory failure.
The new Conservative government prepared in opposition via a series of seminars at which all views were represented, and Nick Gibb had a further seminar in his first year, at which the old and the new, represented by Mossbourne Academy with its strings of A* passes in German and Spanish, met head on. The old lost.
The fact of the national disaster was recognised, and the quangos and pseudo-companies that had built their reputations and six-figure salaries on it were disbanded as their grants came to an end and were not renewed. At the time of writing, there are none left. A ministerial steering group was formed, which heard evidence from the Medical Research Council on the operation of the brain in language learning, and on successful practice in primary schools.
This included work observed by what is now the Teaching Agency on teaching children to write without copying, and evidence from several schools showing that primary children could make substantial progress in a new language, and that this could be carried through into secondary schools when both sets of headteachers agreed to co-operate.
The National Curriculum was slimmed down to two pages of essentials (Labour's Primary Handbook had 132!) and, most importantly, people from all points of view around the table found they could agree with it. There still a few dissenting voices, but the argument has basically been won, and we can get on with the work.
The subject in which the argument has still to be won is not history, or even English grammar, but maths. English and history can be dealt with in the normal process of revision following consultation, but in maths there is a head-on collision between progressive "mathematics educators" – who do not necessarily have degrees in maths – and those who see traditional methods of calculation as the foundation of later progress. I got involved in this area through requests from adults for help with basic maths that they needed for work, including a candidate for the police force who did not understand percentages.
Finance and statistics are all based on fast, accurate calculation, and are essential to everyday life. They are based on knowledge of number facts, including tables to 12 – there being 12 monthly payments in an annual contract – and clear organisation in setting out calculations (I've been told off for calling them all sums). The government's draft curriculum for maths can call on support from the latest HMI report, Mathematics For All, with examples from successful schools.
It is in direct conflict with the prevailing view of the progressive maths establishment, and I counted eight of these people in the 100 academics who opposed the proposed changes a few weeks ago. They have not gone away, and they will not give up. There is, however, no evidence in support of their position that will stand scrutiny, and it is up to us to collect and marshal the evidence needed to prove them wrong.