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

16 thoughts on “MFL in Wales: going down, but do we care?

  1. My French wife teaches French to staff at Admiral every Monday.
    Unfortunately Wales has never had a Welsh Government committed to improve our children’s education.
    Our three year old is fluent in French and English.
    Finally, we can’t have free movement of labour in the EU when you can’t communicate!

  2. Wales currently has few assets it can sell abroad, as a bilingual country proficiency in languages should be one of them (alongside tourism, food creative industries and IT). Whilst Wales and the UK abandon the learning of foreign languages because everyone speaks English, the rest of the world is still enthusiastic about language learning. Cardiff is already a very attractive place for foreign students to come to learn English. Wales should be doing more to welcome them and capitalise on the fact that Wales can provide great accommodation and accessible and inexpensive castles, museums and tourist attractions. If Wales’ economy is to grow, people in Wales need to sell abroad. These are all reasons to keep our children learning languages. If we were really ambitious for our children, we should expect them to be trilingual (like many, many other countries do) and maths, science etc learned alongside. It should not be a question of learning other subjects to the exclusion of languages. We need to expect more. Tough admittedly in today’s world but nothing worth having ever comes easy.

  3. Do we care? Seemingly not. Teaching standards for MFL (didn’t know what that acronym stood for!) are and have always been abysmal. I was taught (if that is the word) French and German at school but promptly forgot everything except ‘la plume de ma tante’ and ‘merde!’. When I lived in and worked in France and Germany I fairly quickly picked up the language (you have to) and became reasonably fluent within a couple of months (without going to classes although that would have helped).
    The problem is that some people have a facility for picking up languages and some don’t. You have to be immersed in the country and it’s culture before your brain can adapt. When you leave a country you can quickly forget as well. Visiting on a package tour is not enough.
    One of the contentious issues about learning Welsh is that it is treated and taught as a ‘foreign’ language often using the same techniques as in school. Most adult Welsh learners don’t wish to be treated as children. Another barrier is that it may still be the language of family and culture in certain strongholds and localities but not business and science (or even of think tanks like the IWA!) which takes away the necessity for people to learn it in order to function economically. This is a pity because it is a truly wonderful language that needs better treatment.

  4. There’s a bigger picture here though. Lack of interest in languages is common throughout the English speaking world. You, I’m sure find language study interesting and rewarding, you wouldn’t be doing the job you do otherwise, but the hard fact is that most people don’t share your enthusiasm. And the reasons are mostly pragmatic. Ask yourself when or where a Welsh teenager is likely to encounter a French or German speaker whose English is worse than their (the pupil’s) school French/German? The answer will surely be “almost never”.

    Your Basque and Latvian kids will have grown up in a world flooded with English language media, and where English is the one language everyone learns to be able to communicate with outsiders. (Once it would have been Latin, later maybe French or German, but now it’s English). If your Basque and Latvian met in Paris or Berlin, I would bet good money (and I’m not a betting man) that they would converse in English. So naturally they’d also speak English to any Welsh person who crossed their path.

    To be on equal terms an English speaker would need to learn all the languages, and life is just too short for that. Kids throughout Europe no doubt watch English language films and TV and probably even read English books and websites, if not for pleasure then for information. Now go into your local public library and tell me how many foreign language novels etc. you find. For that matter how many of your staff are native speakers of the language(s) they teach?

    In short, in an English speaking environment there is little real exposure to other languages and hence no real interest or motivation for the average person to learn them, beyond perhaps family connections with another culture, which in most cases won’t be French or German, I think. In the rest of Europe English is increasingly present as part of everyday life, for better or worse, but foreign languages have little impact on English speakers, so it’s hard for most people to take them seriously. The education system is simply reflecting the situation in the world at large.

  5. I would have loved to have spent the hours wasted in the piss-poor Welsh lessons at my Gwent comprehensive school (within the past decade) learning a language that could actually have helped me communicate in the wider world. I was a conscientious student as well; I always got some of the top marks in class, but I could not remotely function in the language after the compulsory course. They made no attempt to teach grammar, or engage with contemporary media.

    There is a clear opportunity cost to the compulsory teaching of Welsh – I was going to say ‘the Welsh language’ but the language of the Welsh men and women I know is English – and that is, that it displaces scarce timetable slots that could be used for MFL.

    If MFL is to be supported, it needs proper timetable priority. It’s no coincidence that the “generous time allocation” for MFL that the author spoke of came before Welsh was made a compulsory subject up to 16 in 1999.

  6. It’s ironic that miners and quarrymen in Wales valued education so highly that it was a tragidy if their children ended up in the quarry or down the mine.

    Since 1972 Labour have been out to diminish education in Wales, or so it seems.

    They prefer that we make tbeir English masters rich. To much education will give us ideas ubove our station.

    Well. Labour, I’m there already and I’m not alone.

  7. The truth is MFLs don’t matter much any more – there are many more useful subjects these days and you only get one crack at school. When you and I grew up the 2nd language in most European schools was French and it had applications across the middle east, into Africa and parts of Asia. I’ve used French back in the 60s and 70s to talk to Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Egyptian people with little or no English. No longer the case – they mostly speak adequate English along with just about everybody else in the world with a 2nd language!

    The 1st language of what is now the EU was French but it is now English and even the Germans agree on that one! Some UN organisations still have French as their 1st language on paper – e.g. the UPU (Union Postale Universelle but everybody calls it the Universal Postal Union) – which is how we end up with some postal forms in Wales in Welsh and French – any ruse possible to keep English off the paperwork eh guys?

    German hasn’t been much use since 1945! My father learned German at night school during WW2 along with his electrical engineering ‘cos he wasn’t sure who was going to win! Was useful in engineering and architecture for 50-100 years but fading fast… Not sure there’s much point in learning Spanish for the sake of it. Again they mostly speak English these days. Same applies to just about everywhere else – it’s called moving with the times!

    So unless you really want a job in languages or linguistics then I can’t really see the point in doing MFLs any more and I would actually remove the compulsion now.

    But I’m not going to let you get away with this as a rationale for why MFLS are on their knees in Wales:

    “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”.

    Back to the eliffant in the room I’m afraid! There is also a correlation between high incidence of WM secondaries and low take up of MFLs where FSM data clearly does not correlate with your excuse from Blaenau Gwent! Some figures from John Jones who would be happy to present them himself but he has been banned from the IWA forum for failing to accept its bi-lingual groupthink ideology and pro social engineering policies.

    Wales has 17.6% eligible for FSMs and 22% take GCSE in a MFL
    Anglesey has 15.9% eligible for FSMs and 10.7% take GCSE in a MFL
    Gwynedd has 12.3% eligible for FSMs and 14% take GCSE in a MFL

    So low take up of MFLs does not correlate only with high FSMs and excessive choice of subject! But if you look in this FoIA data

    you will see Frairs School, the largest and only secondary in Gwynedd which attempts to maintain an English ethos in defiance of the LEA social engineering policy, has 25.7% taking MFLs – nearly double the LEA average. There the exams are all taken in English and the language teachers tend to be foreign nationals who don’t speak Welsh.

    When you start looking at the data it is pretty clear that MFLs are not being followed through to GCSE in these WM schools. I would argue this is probably down to the shortage of good Welsh speaking MFL teachers. They tend to do quite well up to KS3 but they don’t follow through to GCSE where the ethos of the school is to take WM GCSEs. Having said that, where they do follow through they tend to do quite well.

    On balance I would argue that the general decline of MFLs in Wales mirrors the rise in WM education just as I would argue that falling standards generally have mirrored the rise of WM education. WM education appears to have ‘outgrown its strength’ and is now causing a downhill trajectory across the board. There is FoIA evidence for this in core subjects but it is being systematically suppressed.

    The obvious question is – why can’t Ceri James see this evidence in his own field?

  8. At my local comp in the 80s, by Form 3 (Year 9 today), in my 40 x 35-minute lesson week, we had 4 Welsh First Language, 4 English First Language, 4 French Foreign Language and 3 German Foreign Language. In other words, 37.5% of my timetable was taken up with excellent language preparation.

    By today, the timetable has been crammed full of so many other things that this focus has been lost. In many of our 220 secondary schools today only 1 MFL is actually taught, and as the article points out without a language assistant on staff.

    We have dumbed down our curriculum to such an extent, is it any wonder our PISA results are so poor?

  9. If all else fails and no explanation can be found- blame the Welsh language. Ieuan as someone from Gwent I have to disagree, Welsh has proved more useful to me than French or German. How many communities in Wales use French? None. Are there 562,000 French speakers in Wales? No.

  10. One of my roles is to attract inward investors. I am asked on a daily basis about the Welsh language. 99% of the time the people who ask are curious and want to know as much as possible about our indigenous language. People visiting also want to hear and see Welsh in daily life and practice. I also hear people say how blessed we are to be in a bilingual environment. So, rather than a minus, the Welsh language is a major plus. Long may it stay so!

  11. Ceri,

    You have opened up a genuine debate, but all too late, I fear. You might like to read my article in The Western Mail of last September:

    Some of us do care but despair has taken us over. Your nostalgic picture of great languages success in the past surprises me as the overall outcomes then as now were poor. I think there is a whiff of grammar school about your nostalgia. I recall the old SNCF advertising slogan: “Le progrès ne vaut que s’il est partagé par tous”.

    The truth is that languages are hard to learn. They test fragile confidence as well as technical competence. The UK way we teach languages, in terms of curricular time allocation and pedagogical process, has hardly changed since GCSE was created 25 years ago.Very few can learn successfully within such a limited context and time for practice (you are right to recall a stunningly generous timetable allocation as influential but that will not happen these days). Languages differ from most other subjects in this regard (to be compared maybe with music) but we British plough on regardless. And having English as ‘killer language’ makes it even harder for us. Headteachers don’t care very much; they are measured by the core subjects of English and Maths. Estyn pays more attention to Welsh than MFL. You were an exception to that rule. But I am disappointed you do not mention Welsh as a second language. Its failure is relevant to poor teaching, poor leadership and a central plank of devolution policy frustré.

    Welsh second language-learning mirrors MFL (22%) in low outcomes judged by public examinations, poor value for money and general unpopularity. This is in spite of government edict since 1990. Only 24% of pupils who started the language at the age of five reach GCSE A*-C grade at 16. Most pupils enter the short course, which offers half a GCSE. As this qualification is stunningly low-level and requires the candidate orally to be examined individually for as little as two minutes (most pupils receiving just one hour of Welsh teaching a week), it’s garbage in, garbage out.

    So, Wales has failed and continues to fail on MFL and Welsh second language. Your puff about the excellence of bilingual growth through WM school expansion omits an obvious corollary. Government effort and spend has gone into WM schooling because it is a wholly proven method of linguistic inculcation. The mission to create more national identity through the spread of our indigenous language seems more important to Government than wider economic skills or cultural advantage. In this narrow sense they are excelling. But internationally, we are regressing. And there is no sign that I have seen that WM schools are overachieving in MFL, so lets knock on the head tout de suite the old canard that once we develop our bilingualism, MFL is your oyster. If you have evidence to the contrary on this, I am happy to be corrected.

    Whose fault is all this? Mostly the Government. Partly the mute civil society of Wales but also I have to say CILT took reasonably generous state funding for many years and did not campaign robustly about the underlying political and educational issues aborting languages growth. You hardly popped your head above the parapet until the P45s landed on the CILT desk. We do live ‘in the land of the pulled punch’, as too many rely on the whims of governmental grant to survive. The only way forward is for bodies such as CILT to develop as independent bodies, freed from the statist purse-strings and empowered to articulate timely and unfettered views on public policy.

  12. I recently tweeted out that my son had asked why he had to learn Welsh. ‘ Because the government says so’ was my poor response. I was looking to our politicians for a better answer. Of the few that replied, the reasons given focussed on the general benefits of bilingualism, rather than looking specifically to the benefits of Welsh. Reading this article I suggest that the poor quality Welsh teaching our young people receive is undermining their aptitude for and interest in all languages. My son loves his Spanish and French lessons, but groans at the thought of Welsh. He represents a typical response from young people,. At secondary level their frustration with Welsh lessons impacts negatively on their perceptions of ‘language learning’ in general. If we allowed young people to make their own choices and the welsh provision was ‘optional’, I am confident that uptake of other languages would improve. It is really sad that our government’s attempt to force a language on the young people of Wales is in effect damaging it., I would like to be proud of the Welsh language but this should not be at the expense of our young people’s chances to flourish internationally.

  13. As a linguist and having lived abroad, being back in Wales i see that Those who have jumped on the political bandwagon have little interest in promoting cultural issues that don’t go beyond rugby, rugby and rugby.

    Its shameful. A colleague once confided in me that her husband who works for an international company felt embarrassed when his Spanish clients came as they were unable to find an interpreter to assist with their trips to Wales. Additionally his company compiled statistics on the number of people who hit the ” do you want to continue in Welsh” button on bank cash machines. The figure is below 1%!!! so who really want to learn welsh? not the welsh thats for sure!

    There is a lack of ambition and long term innovative drive that other nations have. Wales needs to let go of its past industrial backward thinking. French , Spanish have a more realistic apppeal. And so to its modern cultures rather than one that is related to rugby, getting six pack and visiting glitzy faceless shopping mall. Yes Im for the practicalities of being bi-lingual in many languages; you need to think of whats going on outside its kingdom to appreciate its own. learn more Spanish, French Mandarin.

  14. The idea of creating a bilingual Wales is an impossible dream. It is also totally impractical as to do so requires enormous amounts of time, money and people who are both fluent in speaking and writing Welsh, plus severe restrictions on immigration and, especially as applied to youngsters, to emigration.

    Children may pick up languages easily enough, but unless they are properly taught with regard to grammar, spelling, etc., the end result can be the sort of incoherence and incomprehensibility that we see in so much English online and elsewhere, and Welsh is not exactly an easy language.

    What should be happening is not just a plan to save the language, but a proper discussion to decide how best to save it and in what form, otherwise the situation will continue to deteriorate. Imposing the language is a costly exercise and ultimately self-defeating.

  15. The growth of Welsh speaking ability is a mirage based around wishful thinking, propaganda and misinformation. Even in the most recent census the percentage of children able to speak Welsh, as reported by parents, is hopelessly optimistic.

    Most of us know that Welsh language provision in English medium schools is at best inadequate and at worst a joke, yet parents who don’t speak Welsh themselves mistake their child’s ability to say a few words in Welsh as ability to speak Welsh to a meaningful degree.

    Much fuss is made of a sudden increase in Welsh speakers in those well known havens for the language; Monmouthshire and Newport. In the census parents reported that 40.3% of their 5-9 year olds were able to speak Welsh yet only 4.4% of 7 year olds in Monmouthshire were assessed in Welsh. Similarly in Newport 34.8% of 5-9 year olds were reported by parents as able to speak Welsh whilst 3.9% of 7 year olds were actually assessed in Welsh.

    After the 2001 census statisticians noted that the Welsh speaking school age cohort from ten years before disappeared in early adulthood. This was put down to migration. It was nothing of the sort; those Welsh speaking schoolchildren were a figment of their parents imagination.

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