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Talking their language: how London's university-school partnerships are helping to tackle the MFL crisis

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 13 January 2017

Caroline Conlon
In the ‘Modern Foreign Languages Pedagogy Review’ published last November by the Teaching Schools Council for the Department for Education, Review chair Ian Baukham paints a bleak picture of language learning in England’s secondary schools. He says, ‘… currently fewer than half of pupils take a GCSE in a language’ and ‘beyond GCSE, modern languages are in crisis.’ He adds, ‘Without concerted action, languages in our schools are at risk, and may become confined to certain types of school and certain sections of the pupil population.’
On top of that, the Guardian reports that Brexit is threatening the supply of teachers who have come to the UK from Europe because Theresa May has refused to give EU nationals  any assurances that they will continue to be welcome. This is of particular concern for MFL teaching.
But as we demonstrate in our new book, Success Stories from Secondary Foreign Languages Classrooms – Models from London school partnerships with universities, all is not doom and gloom.
We acknowledge that there are significant and on-going challenges, particularly in subject uptake and teacher shortages. We stress, however, the value of strong university-school partnerships in creating an environment for reflective practice and encouraging a spirit of exploration and experimentation.
Concerted action is indeed needed, but it needs to be long-term and strategic to ensure sustained growth, rather than the stop-start spurts of growth followed by contraction which has characterised government interest and funding for too long. Languages learning is a long-term investment and suffers especially from the short term whims of policy-makers.
No single answer
The MFL review rightly says (p5), ‘No single approach to teaching languages represents “the best way” in all circumstances.’  London provides a vivid illustration of the many approaches and opportunities which can be tapped. With more than 300 languages spoken in its secondary schools, a wide range of languages are offered as part of the school curriculum and many  students take examinations in their home languages. Our 70+ Post Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) student teachers are presently working in schools offering Arabic, Bengali, Italian, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish and Urdu on their school timetables.
It would be impossible to offer a one size fits all set of recommendations to the many and diverse teachers across the wide range subjects within a subject. Autonomous professionals are constantly making informed decisions about what and how to teach their subject, setting priorities against the many assessment demands that form the backdrop in our schools.
Uptake and learning progress
There is an urgent need to address the decline in uptake, and the report’s 15 recommendations make a welcome contribution and mirror some of the approaches discussed in our book. They provide another starting point for teachers as they seek to make informed decisions about how to ensure progress for our learners.
In her response, Dr Anna Lise Gordon, President of the Association for Language Learning  highlights the report’s emphasis on coherent curriculum planning, teaching of vocabulary, grammatical progression, and an emphasis on phonics and translation skills – all areas already set to feature in ALL’s national annual conference in Nottingham in March.
Safe spaces and shared forums
Our inclusive and ambitious subject has a great deal to offer but some shared understandings across its diverse community of practitioners are essential. What are our priorities?  Are they the same in all languages for all learners in all schools? Languages teachers are natural communicators, keen to find solutions to the challenges faced, but they need the forums in which to do so. Previous generations of MFL teachers had access to a range of well-known, trusted and centrally funded networks: Local Authority subject advisers (who would bring heads of department and classroom practitioners together on a regular basis); CILT, the National Centre for Languages; the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT). Such networks have largely been dismantled as schools are reconfigured as stand-alone institutions encouraged to compete.
Teacher recruitment
This policy approach is also affecting language teacher recruitment as it is fragmenting Initial Teacher Education routes. A drive towards school-based teacher training, combined with the removal of training quotas shared out across the regions, has added to the challenge of recruiting new teachers to long-established programmes with strong, often long-standing, university-school partnerships. The Greater London university initial teacher education (ITE) providers (‘The London Providers’) are committed to co-operation and collaboration rather than competition, and we hope our book demonstrates how these partnerships help ease discussions that have the potential to nurture our subject.
Each chapter shows how effective collaboration has a positive impact on practice, such as teachers as action-researchers, the creation and nurturing of resilient MFL teams, KS2-KS3 transition, literature, film, translation and formative assessment. The partnerships are enriched by London’s dynamic, diverse, multilingual profile.
Against the backdrop of ever-changing policy and ever-evolving theory, this book highlights practical approaches that support teachers in planning to keep learners on board to at least GCSE!
How do you say “poetry slam” in Spanish?
Two chapters illustrating activities from the UCL IOE Secondary PGCE course bring to life innovation in the MFL classroom. Following an award from the British Academy in 2014, the PGCE Languages team designed a project to boost the National Curriculum requirement for the use of literary texts with 11 to 14-year-olds. Student teachers were asked to select an appropriate literary text and to design a sequence of two engaging lessons to fit within their training school’s scheme of work. This not only led to a wealth of resources to share amongst our new teachers but was also a way to boost the resources across the whole school partnership with our 70+ schools. The project yielded resources in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and Russian. Some student teachers used the project as a focus for their Masters Level assignments.
For example, in an Ealing mixed comprehensive, two Year 9 classes were introduced to a Spanish poem. After discussing, reading and listening to the poem, students went on to write poems of their own in Spanish. The two classes then performed these poems in a ‘poetry slam’ competition, going head-to-head over their lunchtime with the Head of Year and Head of Languages as judges. Fourteen and 15-year-olds giving up their free time to come along to share their own spoken Spanish tasks in a public forum – quite an achievement!
This project, now an annual course requirement, demonstrates how literary texts fit within a communicative classroom ethos, where learners are given an opportunity to use the language to create meanings of their own.
The second activity is a long-standing film project with the British Film Institute (BFI). Student teachers select a short film and design a series of lessons around it, sharing their work with one another and colleagues at the BFI in the summer term.
In their chapter, Colin Christie and Shirley Lawes describe how a former student teacher has taken this experience and embedded the use of short films into her lessons. This means that the use of film is not an add-on but is integrated into her teaching. The lesson described related to the topic of daily routine, with the short film allowing students to reuse the topic language in their discussion of the film and also to move beyond it to create their own alternative ending. The teacher skilfully supported and prompted learners’ discussion of the film in French. She also captured their imagination by getting them to predict,still in French, the film’s setting based on the soundtrack alone.
Many hard-working MFL teachers across the city are constantly looking for creative responses to motivate and engage their learners.  Our book describes some of the success stories out there and celebrates the way in which best practice can be shared across long-established partnerships
Caroline Conlon is Lecturer in Education – PGCE Languages and MTeach
Photo: Confucius Institute, UCL IOE

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