Primary languages ‘barely out of the starting block’ - Ofsted

Ofsted has found that in many primary schools teaching of languages is ‘barely out of the starting blocks’. It has published a blog post by Michael Wardle, the inspectorate’s subject lead for languages, which details the findings from subject-specific monitoring visits to outstanding primary schools. Ofsted carried out section 8 inspections of languages education in 24 primary schools across England, between November 2019 and March 2020. The schools, including settings in Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Hounslow, were selected at random from those graded as outstanding at their last inspection. Mr Wardle said: ‘We wanted to identify good practice and strong curriculum management in the subject’. Primary schools have had a legal responsibility to teach languages since 2014. The first cohort of pupils that should have studied languages throughout key stage 2 moved to secondary school in September 2018.

Mr Wardle writes that while schools offered an ‘impressive array’ of languages – not just French and Spanish but in some cases German, Mandarin, Modern Hebrew and even Latin – there was ‘a lot of variation’ in the quality of the curriculum. In some schools ‘pupils were clearly having a brilliant time learning to communicate in a different language and learning about different cultures’ but elsewhere schools were ‘only scratching the surface when it came to matching the scope of the national curriculum’.  The inspectorate found it ‘disappointing to see how many schools were barely out of the starting block with their curriculum.’ Reasons for schools not having developed their languages curriculum further included changes in staffing when schools lost their language specialist; leaders being focused on other areas of the curriculum; or just a simple lack of expertise.

Ofsted generally found one of three models operating in primary schools: 1) specialist teacher brought into school to teach languages. 2) a teacher in school takes responsibility for organisation and delivery of languages. 3) a native speaker member of staff is asked to lead the subject. The inspectorate says that all three models can work, but in some schools there was a misunderstanding of how to make progress in languages: ‘Rather than focusing on the building blocks of a language (phonics, grammar and vocabulary), some schools were simply increasing pupils’ stock of words, through different topics. There was little in the way of linguistic progression.’ Mr Wardle writes. However he says some languages, such as Mandarin, Hebrew and Latin, were perceived to lend themselves to a more structured approach. In these examples curriculum plans were generally more structured and precise, with each small step for pupils mapped out. Mr Wardle suggests there may be lessons in this approach which could be adopted for the teaching of languages more commonly seen in primary classrooms.

Inspectors who carried out the visits also found that assessment tended to be very limited in languages, and the transition from primary to secondary is underdeveloped. They found little evidence of a joined up approach, with ‘limited communication between primary and secondary schools, and little sharing or shaping of grammar, phonics and vocabulary between settings.’ This finding echoes results from last year’s British Council ‘Language Trends’ survey. Among 608 primary schools who responded, 56 per cent reported they had no contact with neighbouring secondary schools in relation to language learning. Where schools did cooperate, this often took the form of informal information sharing, rather than structured cooperation. Mr Wardle suggests that more focus on progression across the key stages would support the government’s ambition to have 90 per cent of pupils studying the suite of subjects that make up the English Baccalaureate (which include an ancient or modern language) by 2025.

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