So many big stories this week that it's hard to keep up. I'll start with the draft National Curriculum, and Michael Gove's announcement that children are to learn a foreign language from the age of seven. This is an important step towards equality for state pupils with those in the private sector none of whom wait till 11 before starting a new language, and an example of how the buck stops with ministers. None of the members of the expert committee knew very much about languages, and on the readily available research, they recommended a start at nine, saying they did not have enough evidence to make a judgement on an earlier start – ie, they didn't know.
Michael Gove and Nick Gibb looked harder and took more advice. This included an international study, Early Language Learning in Europe (ELLiE) that showed that, on the whole, children did benefit from language teaching from seven, and highlighted some of the problems faced by English speakers learning new languages – for example, that they met little of their new language outside school. They also considered evidence from current brain research and from successful British schools, which showed that children's grasp of key grammatical ideas, such as the use of gender in foreign languages, could be established very early, provided that they were presented and explained clearly.
The result was the simple statement from Michael Gove's letter to Tim Rose that we were to have a balanced approach, combining oral and written language, with simple writing from memory rather than copying, and reinforced with songs and rhymes. Sir James Rose, adviser to the previous government, told me he was "delighted" with this announcement. It is also work in progress. St Paul's CE School Brighton was quoted in the Independent on Wednesday as a successful bilingual school, and they sent a photographer to observe a lesson.
They did not send a reporter, but I sat in on the lesson, and wrote this note:
The teacher combined story telling techniques used by Pie Corbett in English to have these six- and seven-year-olds retell a children's story in Spanish that she had scanned into a whiteboard. Their pronunciation was very accurate – phrasing sentences as well as individual words – and they had developed a clear understanding of singular and plural, and of gender. The teacher's techniques for teaching new words included systematic use of accompanying signs, discussed and agreed with the children, that led to clear understanding and learning – a pear was pear-shaped, bananas bent etc – of both written and spoken forms. Finally dancing and singing to reinforce parts of the body. As they left for lunch, children were asked to count in Spanish a number of others to take with them, so that they practised counting, and hearing each other count, without it becoming a chore.
By Year 6, children were fluent, accurate, confident, and able to put on a play, which they videoed.
The new elements for me were the detail in the teacher's use of the story (I've not included her name as this is a political forum, and I don't know her politics), and her very effective use of gestures and signs to teach vocabulary – I'd used elements of both myself, but not as well as this.
Apologies if that sounded like an Ofsted report, but I only wish it did – Ofsted has visited the school twice since this teaching has been in place. They did not see it, and did not mention languages at all. This is one of the clearest examples yet of the damage done by Labour's ignorant, juggernaut approach to inspection, and its indifference to individual excellence, which was included in reports until 2005, and then dropped. The result is that no-one outside the immediate area knows of this brilliant work. Fortunately, the ELLiE researcher, Professor Janet Enever, is carrying out an in-depth study of it.
The move this week, reported on the Sunday Times website, to reduce the role of Ofsted's specialist HMI is another step in the same direction, and must be prevented. Labour, guided by Professor John White, did not believe in subjects except where they promoted Labour's social agenda. In fact, subjects are a way of organising and developing thinking, investigation and understanding that has been systematically misrepresented by progressive educators. Too many senior officials at Ofsted are still in the Labour mould, and still intent on decapitating the system in the name of equality. Well done, though, to Sir Michael Wilshaw for replacing Labour's Ofsted logo "Better Education and Care" with "Raising Standards, Improving Lives." He has plenty more to do.
Finally, Children's Minister Tim Loughton is beginning to make an impact on the disastrous gaps in care provision by enlisting the services of Professor Eileen Munro. I gave Labour credit in my last posting for improving educational support for children in care, which they did by setting up specialist teams in each LA. This did not address the serious issues surrounding care itself.
Professor Munro's practical and realistic approach is summed up in the title of one of her recent papers – Children and young people's missed health care appointments: reconceptualising 'Did Not Attend' to 'Was Not Brought'.
Cometh the hour, cometh the woman. And congratulations to ministers for finding her.