Minister renews commitment to foreign language teaching in primary schools

(Title Image: BBC News)

Responsibility for the first short debate on the new year fell to Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West), on the subject of modern foreign languages (MFL) in schools.

Wales “at a disadvantage” in a globalised economy

Suzy Davies expressed a real worry about the decline in the population’s ability to communicate in languages other than English and Welsh. The benefits of being multilingual are both personal (improved cognitive ability) as well as economic in a globalised economy. The UK loses 3.5% of its GDP every year because of poor foreign language skills and English, whilst indispensable, will meet just 29% of future language skill demand globally.

Guidance on teaching modern foreign languages dates from 2018 and despite good work in years 7 and 8, enthusiasm often petered out in later years due to many factors including variable teaching standards, limited lesson time and too few teachers.

“I think what has leapt out at me from all the research and reports that I’ve read, and I’m sure the Minister and her officials have had the opportunity to read far more…. the message that comes through loud and clear is that languages are first and foremost means of communication. But, that’s not what it feels like when you study it at school. And yet, their purpose as a means of communication, which makes teaching them so valuable and especially valuable to Wales, is because we need to communicate with the world.”
– Suzy Davies AM

Whilst supporting greater autonomy for schools to pursue different ways of teaching MFL – and there was no reason why teaching MFL should be any different to teaching English or Welsh – there had to be a level of accountability too.

Also, there had to be a clear movement towards teaching a third language in primary schools, so it carries over into Year 7 and beyond (when MFL is usually first introduced). We had to understand why so few primary schools have taken this up to date.

Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) expressed support for making an MFL compulsory at GCSE or a double qualification similar to GCSE science.

Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West) cited the use of apps as an aid to learning new languages and making it easier in many respects; should apps like Duolinguo and Mango Languages be used in schools?

Pupils will start learning foreign languages from a younger age

Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), said the new curriculum will ensure all pupils start learning MFL from primary school.

“I’d like to state that languages are crucial and very important for Wales’s future prosperity and our influence in the rest of the world. I recognise the challenge in the short term, and, as our changes begin to take effect, we will need to redouble our efforts with partners in this agenda, understanding some of the very real reasons why students choose not to take GCSEs….promotion of languages, and the perception that language GCSEs are hard.”
– Education Minister, Kirsty Williams

In terms of practical support, primary school teachers are being encouraged to take part in an Open University scheme to enable them to teach languages, while £2.5million has been invested to develop centres of excellence alongside a mentorship scheme to encourage MFL uptake at GCSE and A-Level.