John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
Readers of this column will know that I have been worried about the decline of language learning for many years, and have been doing my best to help the government tackle it. At a DfE seminar in 2010, some of our critics, including several drawing six-figure salaries from quangos, argued that I was wrong to say that we were facing a national disaster. Sitting beside me was the head of languages at Mossbourne Community Academy, whose department had just achieved 24 A* grades in German, and 28 A* grades in Spanish, by the simple method of grouping pupils according to their needs and abilities, teaching them well, and ensuring that they worked hard and behaved themselves.
Correcting the errors of these quangos, and their friends in teacher training, is a long, hard task. Wholesale cheating in examinations was only removed last year, and the position is still not secure in speaking tests. The errors began with the late Professor Eric Hawkins, who advocated “tolerance” of pupils’ errors – leading to no progress at all for many – and continued with the work of a series of overlapping and expensive organisations that put all of their efforts into exposing children to language, with no attention to the results. Mixed ability teaching was the hidden agenda, and research efforts kept well away from it, because it was obvious that there was a price to be paid in terms of the achievements of the most able pupils. The zealots in charge of the quangos were prepared to pay this price, though they could not afford to do so openly.
Through the efforts of Michael Gove and Nick Gibb, their quangos have been closed down, but their legacy and continuing influence are clear in reports issued by the British Academy on behalf of four others – including the Royal Society – and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Languages. The first report proposes a “national strategy”, reminiscent of Blair’s solution to every problem. It makes no reference to standards or teaching methods, and proposes a link to similar strategies in Scotland and Wales, neither of which has shown any evidence of improved standards. In Wales, under 20 per cent of pupils took a GCSE in a language other than Welsh in 2017, which indicates that they have a problem rather than a solution.
The BA report cites an estimate from Cardiff Business School that failure to learn languages is costing us £48bn a year, but does not mention the report’s admission that it contains “a wide margin of error.” It’s hard to see the Royal Society accepting this in any other area of its work, and highlighting the estimate without the qualification is more suited to propaganda than to science. Much more reliable is a comment by Richard Hardie, former Chairman of UBS, to the All-Party Parliamentary group, that what was needed was linguists with the levels of linguistic skill and fluency needed to design and negotiate contracts and understand regulations. The Cardiff recommendation of high-level business placements, including MBAs, is in line with this view.
The All-Party group is something of a misnomer, as a large number of Conservative MPs are members, but never attend its meetings. Its “National Recovery Programme” makes the important point that the decline in languages has damaged the supply of teachers, a phenomenon that has resulted in one civil servant receiving a decoration from the French government for providing work for French nationals who couldn’t find any in France. Otherwise the report is very similar to that of the British Academy, an uncosted wishlist with no mention of the issue of standards, which is at the heart of the decline in A level, or indeed of the steps the government is taking to address the issue.
The first of these, the Mandarin Excellence Project, is leading to higher standards in the learning of Chinese than we have ever had in the UK, and has turned round a situation in which millions of pounds, and the goodwill of the Chinese government, were squandered through lack of consistency and support. It was mortifying to see some of the best teaching anywhere wasted because no-one provided any consolidation between lessons, leaving the visiting teacher to start from scratch each time. Now, pupils are given an intensive course that ensures that they really understand how spoken and written Mandarin work, and have the satisfaction of knowing that they are making real progress, as the All-Party group has seen. A similar, though less intensive, approach is to be developed through the national system of Language Hubs, based at York University and led by Dr Rachel Hawkes, a former president of the Association for Language Learning, and Professor Emma Marsden.
Unlike the British Academy and APPG proposals, these initiatives have a clear emphasis on standards and outcomes, which is the only long-term way to address the concerns of Richard Hardie, and of the APPG itself in relation to the supply of teachers. For these two organisations to take no notice of them at all would be disappointing, if it were not for the ever-present elephant in the room, mixed ability teaching, which remains a matter of principle for our opponents, whether it enables children to learn effectively or not. The pupils I see are being failed by the system. They need better teaching, not wishful thinking.
PS. The Select Committee has reported on the nursing degree apprenticeship, and the government replied on Monday.