MFL in Wales: going down, but do we care?

Ceri James says that it’s crunch time for MFL in Wales

Wales is a country that was once proud of its comprehensive and relatively equitable education system and I was certainly a beneficiary of that in the 1960s and ‘70s. Having enjoyed a Welsh-medium primary education I then attended the local comprehensive school in Swansea and was one of 13 pupils who progressed to study at Oxbridge colleges in 1978. I later became a teacher of French and German and having started my career in Oxfordshire returned to Wales in 1985.

Looking back, I realise that I had it easy, and not just in terms of my free university education. As a young Head of Languages I had a supportive Headteacher who realised that in an economically deprived area such as the Rhymney Valley, MFL could help to raise pupils’ aspirations, providing a route out of poverty for some and exciting study or travel prospects for others. Over the years I have bumped into former pupils who have ended up working as publishers in Italy, rugby players in France and even soldiers in the French Foreign Legion (admittedly a career path I would not necessarily recommend!) They all told me that their proficiency in French opened doors for them and interestingly, most had returned to Wales following periods spent working or studying abroad.

Back in the ‘80s, a generous time allocation within a 1-week timetable meant that I was teaching pupils every day for 35 minutes – an ideal scenario to deliver fast-paced lessons with a great deal of oral work. My bilingual pupils knew that ‘ffenestr’ and ‘pont’ in Welsh were not a million miles from their French equivalents, and that the informal form of address ‘ti’ was the same as the French ‘tu’. Numbers opting for GCSE in French were buoyant, exam results excellent and continuation rates to A Level improving.

So what has changed in 2014? Whilst Welsh-medium education, driven by parental demand, has continued to expand (meaning that almost a quarter of Welsh pupils are now functionally bilingual – a tremendous achievement), numbers taking a GCSE in MFL have declined from 55% of the cohort in 1995 to 22% in 2013. There is a proven link between social deprivation and low take-up of MFL and Wales has some of the poorest areas in the UK. In Blaenau Gwent, just 11% of pupils continue with a foreign language post-14. We have the shortest period of statutory foreign language in the European Union (3 years) and contact time within a two-week timetable is commonly 1.5 hours a week. In some schools it is as low as 1 hour, contrary to Welsh HMI Estyn’s recommendation that schools devote at least 2 hours a week to the subject. Numbers of Foreign Language Assistants have plummeted, and now number just 61 to cover Wales’s 220 secondary schools.

At 14, as a result of the Welsh Government’s ’14-19 Learning Pathways’ policy, pupils are faced with 30 study options, commonly crammed into 3 or 4 option columns, with MFL sometimes appearing in just one column. This will reduce to 25 options next year (the government perhaps realising that it had over-egged the Choice Pudding), but faced with a range of subjects such as Media Studies, Child Development, Care of Small Animals and IT, which may appear to the average 14-year-old to be more vocational or frankly easier, what chance do MFL departments have of increasing numbers opting for languages? It is to their credit that some have managed to do so against all the odds, but with Headteachers obliged to prioritise increasing A*-C pass rates regardless of the subject and A Level numbers also in freefall, the prospects for MFL in Wales now look decidedly grim. Unsurprisingly, HE Departments are under pressure and report that fewer MFL undergraduates are coming from Wales.

When Welsh Government officials informed me in January 2014 that funding for CILT Cymru (the National Centre for Languages in Wales) was being slashed by 70%, it must have felt like another nail in the coffin for struggling MFL teachers. A storm of protest ensued, with Education Minister Huw Lewis receiving letters and e-mails from teachers, teacher trainers, university lecturers and prominent business leaders. The government decision to remove MFL altogether from its flagship Welsh Baccalaureate Qualification set further alarm bells ringing and led to a debate on the Welsh MFL crisis at the House of Lords (APPG, March 12th).

Reading a recent report by OECD entitled ‘Improving Schools in Wales’, it is clear that the decline of MFL is part of a broader and more serious lack of vision on the part of the Welsh Government. OECD recommends that the Welsh Government ‘develop a long-term vision’ for education, including ‘a shared vision of the Welsh learner’.

If one travels to small EU nations or autonomous regions such as Latvia or the Basque Country one can see the results of pursuing such a vision over a period of ten to fifteen years. Young Latvians and Basques have been given the opportunity to build on their native bilingualism and are commonly tri-lingual (or even quadri-lingual) and aware of their rights and opportunities as EU citizens. They are mentally and linguistically prepared for the remarkable opportunities to study or work abroad available to them via the EU’s newly-expanded Erasmus+ programme. They also know that they may have to look beyond their own borders if they are to compete with their EU peers in an incredibly competitive global jobs market.

In contrast, Welsh Government has progressively backed away from the commitments it made in its 2002 MFL Strategy document ‘Languages Count’. A six-year primary MFL pilot managed successfully by CILT Cymru from 2003-09 was unceremoniously dumped despite the investment of £1.5m of public money and great enthusiasm from teachers, learners, parents and school governors. Only now in 2014 has the very positive independent final evaluation report on the project been posted on the Welsh Government website.

The stated aim of consulting with local authorities regarding ‘local target setting for foreign language take-up at Key Stage 4’ has been dropped and ‘secondary legislation necessary to achieve this’ is never mentioned. The current Welsh Government civil servants with oversight of MFL, unlike their predecessors, do not appear to be convinced that the subject has any strategic importance for Wales and its young people. Why, they ask, should MFL be favoured above any of the other study options available to pupils post-14?

With Part 2 of its Curriculum Review now upon us, it is time for the Welsh Government to put up or shut up. Do languages really count? Will it pay lip-service to the importance of MFL and stand by whilst the subject continues to wither, or will it follow the example of Scotland and put in place a bold, long-term strategy to reverse decades of decline? It is crunch-time for MFL in Wales. For the sake of our young people, I hope the Welsh Government makes the right decisions, and having made them, sticks to them.

Ceri James is the former Director of CILT Cymru

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