This posting first appeared on Conservative Home, 22.11.16. The points it makes are not, however, party political. I do not see how anyone, anywhere, could support the ignorant and fraudulent approach I describe.
My pupil – call him George – has had German on his school timetable for five years, but he has not been learning German. Instead, he has been “exposed” to German he doesn’t understand, with no explanation of the structures of the language, leaving him with no idea of how to say or write anything whatsoever in German. For his GCSE “controlled assessment”, he writes down German words, in something like the order they would appear in English, and emails them to his teacher. She rewrites them in German, including accurate verbs and word endings, and returns his email, in sections, for him to learn by heart the German he has not been taught, and reproduce it in his school-based examination, with the help of thirty words written on a cue card.
I’ve seen a whole class in the midlands mistaught German using the same method and a London teacher, at the Austrian Embassy’s recent open day, told me she was required to correct and rewrite controlled assessments no fewer than five times. One result is that the assessment does not in any way reflect these pupils’ knowledge of the language. Another is that they know that they have learned nothing, and want nothing further to do with languages, whatever fake grade they happen to receive.
Thanks to Michael Gove’s examination reforms, this scam will no longer be possible from next year, but we also need, urgently, to replace the errors in teaching that have led to it. The All Party Parliamentary Group for Languages received a warning last month from Richard Hardie, former Chairman of UBS, that we had an acute shortage of linguists with the levels of skill needed to draw up contracts and deal with foreign regulators. Other business leaders identified a particular problem with German. As Germany is our largest trading partner, and as German has suffered greater decline than any other major language, the implications following the referendum are obvious.
Enter the Teaching Schools Council, a body set up to co-ordinate school-based teacher training, but until now not widely known outside its own membership. At the request of Nick Gibb, the Council has set up a working party, chaired by Ian Bauckham, a German specialist, Executive Headteacher of the Bennett Memorial Diocesan School and a Trustee of the National Foundation for Educational Research. Its members included two former presidents of the Association for Language Learning, the Professor of German at Oxford University, and Dr Emma Marsden, of York University, whose thesis provided important evidence of the effectiveness of teaching grammar. It investigated widely, with an external review of research, round-tables with specialists and school leaders, and visits to successful schools including Michaela Free School, Comberton Village College, and two Harris academies. I was a member of the group, whose report was launched at the British Council on Thursday, and presented to the APPG on Monday last week.
The report recommends systematic teaching of vocabulary, grammar, and the sound-letter correspondences of the new language, informed by the brain research of the Medical Research Council. At the launch, Ian Bauckham recommended that pupils be grouped according to their learning needs, and the report stresses the need to bring out the talents of the most able pupils, to equip them for work at A level and beyond. It is the antithesis of the mixed-ability policies produced by Labour quangos over the last half-century, and still prevalent in university-based teacher training. This gives it an importance that extends beyond language learning. With some important and honourable exceptions, Michael Gove and Chris Woodhead were right about the Blob, which still controls too much of teacher training and research, even in the academic elements of Teach First. The academic clout behind this report gives the Teaching Schools Council the means to develop a fresh approach, fully informed by research. One of our members, Dr Rachel Hawkes, has written good textbooks for Spanish and German.
And it is not too late to help George. The report’s teaching techniques are easy to understand and to use. Last summer, they enabled a GCSE pupil to move from a borderline C to an A grade in a matter of weeks, and this year they helped an A level candidate who had A* in other subjects to secure an A after a six months, both in French. George has learned the basic structures of German, beginning with common verbs and the linguistic features the teacher had inserted into his work, and is beginning to enjoy some elements of German usage based on his personal experience. The British – George, my other pupils, and myself included – are not “bad at languages.” We simply need to teach them properly. This report shows how.