our words make worlds

Language policy discussion, Languages Memory conference 13-14 June 2018

By Alice Hazard

Language Acts and Worldmaking: Languages Memory Conference, 13th-14th June 2018, King’s College London

Languages Memory: Policy Discussion

Chair: Wendy Ayres-Bennet

Speakers: Terry Lamb & Lid King

On the 13th June 2018, as part of Language Acts and Worldmaking's ‘Languages Memory’ conference, panel chair Wendy Ayres-Bennett was joined by Lid King and Terry Lamb in a discussion about the past, present and future of language policy in England. The concept of ‘memory’ served as a crucial guide as the speakers shared their own experiences of shifts in language policy over the last forty years, exploring how we can learn from past mistakes and build on past achievements in order to forge a better, and more sustainable, future for language learning. The idea for the panel came from a comment Terry Lamb made at one of the Language Acts and Worldmaking's advisory board meetings about the lack of memory of languages policy in the UK. The speakers thus addressed this amnesia, seeking to retrieve a more accurate and, ultimately, more useful picture of the past.

Beginning with an initial acknowledgement that language policy is not in especially rude health in England in 2018, and ending with broadly the same conclusion, the panel presented the good, the bad and the ugly of language policy in recent decades, charting the creative freedom of the 1980s, the regime of accountability introduced in the 1990s and the subsequent ‘fizzling out’ of language initiatives after the coalition government came to power in 2010. To build on the retrieval of memory begun by this panel, Terry Lamb ended the discussion with a call to arms: while it can be no less than soul-destroying to dwell on what was lost in 2010, we now need to gather that all back again in order to move forward and to work towards countering the unfavourable contemporary conditions for language learning in England.

The Eighties, Nineties, Noughties and Now

Terry Lamb, speaking first, offered a personal and reflective picture of what has been something of a rollercoaster ride in terms of shifts in language policy from one decade to the next, characterising each ten-year period in terms of its overriding ethos. The 1980s, especially before the 1988 Education Reform Act introduced the National Curriculum, were, for Lamb, a time of motivation, flexibility, creativity and collaboration in teaching. Schools were able to develop their own curricula that were relevant to their specific conditions and contexts, and which were based on the key themes of the period: autonomous learning, motivational objectives and provision for vocational courses and flexible accreditation. Inner London schools and their Local Authorities, for instance, were free to respond to their particular environment with a focus on anti-racism, multiculturalism and social justice education. In this pre-Ofsted era there was also an emphasis on collaboration, as schools were able to work together in consortia, rather than compete with one another in league tables as they would later. Indeed, dialogues with local inspectors were often helpful and supportive. All this filtered, of course, into language education specifically. An emphasis on and celebration of multiculturalism, especially in urban areas, fed into the development of language awareness courses, taster classes and samplers in secondary schools. However, it was also this focus – too radical for some – on social justice that led to Local Authorities ultimately being stripped of their power.

The 1990s proved to be a contrasting decade in terms of education and language policy. The birth of the National Curriculum was a moment that marked the increasing marketisation of education, with league tables and OFSTED affording parents a greater sense of choice, and giving schools increasing incentives to compete with one another. Introducing the National Curriculum was a struggle, as it forced schools to spend time and resources measuring, identifying, labelling and finding and presenting evidence. There was an erosion of collaboration in favour of competition, with schools that previously worked together no longer wanting to give their ideas away to what were now competitors. The result of this regime of accountability was necessarily that freedom was restricted and creativity in teaching was stifled. Although there was nothing actually in the curriculum that prohibited creativity, with the perceived threat of OFSTED looming, and its voracious appetite for evidence, education professionals were nonetheless nervous and tended to revert to more traditional, tried-and-tested approaches to teaching and learning. Anything that didn’t count in league tables, therefore, fell by the wayside. Some teachers, Lamb included, continued to work creatively during this period, and continued their work on flexible learning – work that was, perhaps ironically, nonetheless praised.

After the peak and trough of the eighties and nineties, respectively, came the somewhat more mixed 2000s. In 2000 the Nuffield Report was published, in response to which the Labour government set up the National Languages Steering Group. The National Languages Strategy was then launched in 2003, reflecting the government’s own goals of valorising the linguistic diversity of the United Kingdom and promoting social inclusion and community cohesion. Key initiatives were developed such as the 14-19 Diploma in Languages and International Communication and the Languages Ladder which allowed for the accreditation of many more languages than had previously been the case. The National World Languages Strategy promoted the provision of a wider range of languages offered in schools and colleges, as well as the utilisation of the language skills of minority ethnic groups. These initiatives, which were broadly welcomed by Higher Education, were the result of a huge amount of research and consultation going on at the time with the goal of encouraging and motivating students to continue the study of languages.

Despite this progress, the decades had serious downsides when it came to languages education. A strategy that had been developed to have more pre-14 language learning in schools was guided by the goal of 14-year olds with the skills to have meaningful and relevant conversations in another language. The idea was, therefore, to have compulsory language learning between the ages of 9 and 14, followed by a large range of post-14 language qualifications. The reality was, however, that schools misinterpreted the classification of languages as an ‘entitlement’, taking it to mean ‘optional’. The rest, as they say, is history. The political climate changed in 2010 when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government came to power, and many of the strategies and initiatives born from the work of the 2000s either fizzled out or were cancelled. Languages were no longer a government priority. It is perhaps ironic, then, that it was the coalition government that was praised for the increased provision of language learning in primary schools, when its predecessor had done the work to put this in place. Lamb attributes this particular attack of amnesia to the controversies surrounding Tony Blair and the Iraq War, and suggests that this has affected what we consider acceptable from the Labour government.

What is policy?

From 2003 until 2011, Lid King was National Director for Languages in England and some of the work he did in this position dealt with the question of what we mean by ‘policy’. Following Terry Lamb’s overview of recent decades, King addressed this and other broader questions about the role and nature of language policy.

Especially when it comes to education, there is a difference between explicit and implicit policy. Very little policy actually works, in reality, in the traditional sense whereby a goal is set out and a strategy is developed and implemented in order to achieve this goal. Other factors, principally individual and societal choice, prevent this kind of straightforward process. In 1996, for example, compulsory post-14 languages was introduced in schools in England as a matter of policy. The reality, however, was that a significant number of people weren’t carrying through the policy, and it was eventually cancelled in 2004. Individual and institutional choice, therefore, undermined the successful implementation of an explicit policy. It is, indeed, the case across Europe that there is much better policy than there is practice. For example, many European countries have a policy that states that all students must reach B2 language level by the end of compulsory education, whereas in reality this is far from the case. King gives the specific example of French students of the English language, saying that very few even reach A2 by this stage. In some cases, of course, there is no explicit policy (Ireland has no primary languages policy), and one way to interpret this is as a negative policy: if there is no policy to do something, then there is effectively a policy not to do it. Sometimes, on the other hand, there is no policy because the issue is self-explanatory. King advocates a single, coherent language policy for the UK, rather than disparate policies that deal with different contexts, languages and institutions. Language policy, when it does exist, never exists in isolation but is, rather, part of broader social, political and economic issues and this ought to be reflected in a jurisdiction’s policy structure. Catalonia provides a useful example: this is one of the few places where the government policy is broad and inclusive of many different languages that exist in the region for different reasons. Educational institutions, in turn, develop their own policy according to their own circumstances, under the broad umbrella of government policy.

Much thought in this and the previous century has been put into how to frame languages education and which of these frameworks needs then to be turned into policy. A sticking point in recent decades and in the current moment, however, is the oppressiveness of the accountability regime. Stifling creativity, accountability has been disastrous for the development of innovative, progressive and, ultimately, effective language teaching strategies. This was even acknowledged by Estelle Morris at a conference where she admitted that the Labour government went too far in its mission to raise educational standards. Aside from the ossifying effect of accountability in education, there are other external factors that influence both explicit policy and how people actually behave. The Council of Europe and latterly the European Union have been forces for good in terms of UK language policy. On the other hand, the fact that a language qualification is not, albeit with a handful of exceptions, a university entrance requirement in England has had a decidedly negative impact on the number of people choosing to study languages to A-level.

Where do we go from here?

For Wendy Ayres-Bennett, a key question now is whether it is enough for us to be promoting languages themselves, or if we need to be speaking in other terms and addressing other agendas such as social cohesion, immigration, international trade and literacy. There is research, for instance, that demonstrates that foreign language learning has a positive effect on L1 literacy. We ought, therefore, to be making much more of this in our efforts to improve the state of language learning in England. For Lid King, the policy that would make most difference would be to go back to the work that was done before 2010 on primary language learning and to continue with the strategy that was extremely effective, but which was then stymied by the coalition government. We are currently in a situation where, for instance, a high percentage of primary school teachers are teaching languages in which they have little or no competence. Again, accountability and stringent standards are guilty of stifling language learning: the push for certain levels of attainment, measured by an assessment system that is itself substandard, means that French, as the most widely taught and therefore safest language, will dominate at all levels at the expense of other languages. As it stands, school assessment is such that, rather than each level being celebrated and being considered worthwhile in its own right, regardless of progression, levels are only considered as stepping stones. It is, therefore, a failure to reach level 1 instead of level 2 when it ought to be considered a success to reach any level. These earlier – now scrapped – initiatives such as Languages for All and the Languages Ladder valued, celebrated and incorporated the multilingualism of British society. A single, coherent language policy would also be a way of redressing the loss of status of language learning. Language is central to education, to understanding and to humanity and this ought to be reflected in national policy. On top of this, school assessment needs to be radically shaken up and trimmed down so that we are no longer a country in which seven-year-olds are worrying about SATs results. A flexible range of different post-14 accreditations is then required in order to account for the range of reasons for learning a language, and the range of languages to be learnt.

Looking to other societies and jurisdictions can be illuminating but we must also take into account the fact that the context is different in places where English is not the first language. The US, it was noted, is doing worse than the UK in terms of language learning. Across Europe there are many different ideas that are worth studying, but a key question is how much time and resources a society dedicates to language learning. Without this being provided for by an education system, it is then down to chance and external factors to determine if an individual will be able to achieve competence in another language. Equally, we are failing to recognise a large swathe of language competence if our school system focusses narrowly on a small set of languages and doesn’t validate others. The bottom line is that we don’t give language learning the time it requires: nobody would go about learning a language the way we teach languages in schools. We must either we change the way we teach or adopt more realistic objectives. Unfortunately, real progress in language education policy can be hindered by the fact that it gets used as something of a political football and is often at the mercy of individual politicians’ personal whims. At the same time, however, the meetings of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages are generally badly attended by any politicians who have real clout when it comes to policy decisions. There is a real risk that we are simply talking to ourselves. We – as academics and as campaigners – need to spend more time thinking strategically about who we are talking to in order to get our message across. Different geographical, socio-economic and political contexts need to be taken into account and considered carefully when it comes to communicating the benefits of language learning. 

Alice is an associate of the Language Acts and Worldmaking project and a postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the French dept at King's College London