SchoolThe conflict discussed last week between research and progressivism applies in every subject. For example, in maths, the key issue is moving children from counting to knowing number combinations and tables – if they can do this, they can learn to calculate. As progress varies, the goal is in conflict with equality (in progressive-speak, it is “divisive”), and so they have ensured that there has been no research whatsoever in the UK in the past fifty years on learning multiplication tables.

Thanks to the good offices of an academic on the other side of the argument, I’ve located some work in the US and Australia, including this paper that shows the value of regular practice. More is needed on teaching techniques, but it is a start.

Christopher Pyne, the Australian minister for education, can take heart, though he has plenty of progressives on his own patch, including some recent exports from the UK.

In languages, the conflict between equality and intellectual development has led our opponents into convoluted reasoning and left language teaching across the country in need of intensive care that is not being provided. I returned to it after spending most of my working life tackling serious reading problems, and did so because children with reading difficulties were faring so badly that the TES compared the failure rate with Paschendaele.

Working with languages teachers in three local schools, I developed a way of presenting French that explained the main areas where children needed to adjust their thinking, showed them how the written and spoken language worked, and gave them a basis for building their knowledge and understanding. The results were dramatic.

One child, whose spelling and handwriting were so poor that you could not tell whether she was trying to write in English or French, was able to compose and understand simple sentences about herself and her interests after three weeks’ practice. After presenting the work at a conference in Strasbourg, I was given the honour of a toast at lunchtime, accompanied by a comment from a French colleague, “Vous l’avez sauvée.”

But had I? In showing her how to write, and in using errors as a basis for teaching and developing understanding rather than simply tolerating them, I had gone against the progressive mantra that writing didn’t matter. Outside my collaborators, one of whom moved over to what is known as “pastoral” work, the research was damned with faint praise. I’d had previous experience of this on a small scale in Clacton, where I’d been asked to help out a bottom set in a school that had no French teacher for them. The class, all of whom had problems with reading, did better than the top set had in their written exam, and the school asked me to explain the imbalance in my teaching that had caused the problem. How dare I promote literacy?

The issue goes to the heart of the state we’re in, and will not go away. Recent research at Reading University has shown that, whatever the emphasis used by the teacher, pupils’ literacy was the biggest single factor in success in language learning – more important even than their teacher’s level of qualification in languages. This finding is confirmed by the mass dropout of less literate pupils as soon as they have a chance of dropping languages. However, making full use of pupils’ literacy skills in learning the new language is “divisive” as it puts those who are less literate at a disadvantage. An approach that relies purely on spoken language avoids this. Whether or not it is the most effective way of learning a language is irrelevant, as is the other finding in the Reading research that an emphasis on writing helped develop the literacy skills of the less literate pupils.

I’ve seen the results of the progressive approach at first hand and discussed them with pupils.

Almost all dislike it and many hate it. It involves equal confusion for all – “It’s as if it’s all one word,” as one pupil put it, and even one of its advocates, at a school with an excellent reputation, told a conference at Wellington College last year that, “We have a lot of tears in the first term.” The long term consequences are the collapse of language learning at A level – German has ceased to be provided in large areas of the country, and had only 3000 entries at A level last year – slower export growth, and impaired international relations.

Vicky Ford MEP sent me this reference to the latest report in the Telegraph, showing that only 2.8 per cent of applications to the EU civil service came from the UK, which has 12 per cent of the population. The Foreign Office has re-opened its language school, thanks to the personal intervention of William Hague, but taking senior diplomats and putting them through crash courses on full salary is an expensive way to plug a gap.

The fact that progressive influence in language teaching has led to failure, misery and decline does not put its proponents off for a minute. They continue to use their influence to promote mixed ability teaching and to block research designed to identify effective teaching. They still have allies in the civil service, who do not understand languages and who cling to the previous government’s view that subjects and languages don’t matter – a view, incidentally, that is sustained by Ofsted’s continuing failure to include subject reports on inspection, which led HMI to say last year that they couldn’t report on sixth form language teaching “because we never see any.”

The new national curriculum that starts next month has a balanced approach, to which the research above has contributed. It has had a very positive professional response, including endorsement by the past and present presidents of the Association for Language Learning. Its opponents’ tactic is to pretend that it does not involve any change to current practice, which they continue to dominate, but they know that this is not the case. We have the chance of a fresh start, and must seize it.

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