Primary languages: Is your school ready?

Written by: HTU | Published:

As primary schools prepare to deliver compulsory foreign languages at key stage 2, the annual Language Trends survey has shone a light on some common concerns. Alex Elwick explains.


From September, foreign languages will form a compulsory element of the key stage 2 primary curriculum. Published last year, following the government’s broad review of the national curriculum, it will be expected that, by year 6, pupils leaving primary school will have some ability in both writing and speaking skills, with a particular focus on high standards of practical communication.

Ten years ago only around a quarter of primary schools were thought to be teaching a language. This year the 2013/14 Language Trends survey shows that, in advance of the statutory changes, 95 per cent of primary schools are now teaching a language, with 42 per cent saying they meet the forthcoming national curriculum requirements.

While the move to give languages more priority within the primary curriculum is a welcome one (85 per cent of teachers are positive about the changes), there is nonetheless concern on three fronts: that a lack of communication between secondaries and their primary feeder schools hinders the continuation of language studies (potentially negating the effect of language teaching at primary level); that a large number of current key stage 2 teachers, while immensely dedicated, are not confident that they have the necessary skills to teach languages; and that there will not be sufficient curriculum time to properly integrate language teaching from September.

Surprisingly, nearly half of primary schools have no contact at all with language specialists in their local secondary schools. This means that once pupils finish key stage 2 and move up to a secondary school there is a significant risk that they will not be able to carry on with a language previously learnt (over a quarter of the state secondary schools surveyed were unable to teach their new pupils the language they had already studied).

A further concern, expressed among secondary language teachers, was that when they did take on pupils with evidence of prior learning in languages, this was often regarded as being of poor or variable quality and insufficient on which to build. Hence, even if pupils were able to continue learning a language previously studied, they may be no better off than pupils without relevant experience. It is clearly a concern that the level of collaboration between schools, at the point of transition from primary to secondary, appears to be so fragile this close to the compulsory introduction of language teaching.

Confidence levels among classroom teachers at key stage 2 are not increasing when compared to last year’s survey results: with 29 per cent of respondents reporting that staff teaching languages in years 5 and 6 in the school are not confident. This is not surprising given that in many of these schools (almost a quarter) the highest level of languages qualification possessed by teachers is a GCSE. Clearly the statutory changes demand the provision of further training for primary teachers alongside a robust package of support and guidance.

However, in spite of the need for training and support, this year’s research suggests a low level of engagement with subject-specific CPD to enable teachers to improve their subject knowledge to teach languages. Much support that was previously available through local authorities or secondary school partnerships no longer exists and there is, instead, a vacuum which clearly requires filling.

To compound these issues, there is significant disparity in terms of teaching time currently allocated to languages across the primary sector, with those schools that teach a language offering between 15 minutes a week in some cases, to as much as 80 minutes a week in others. While 12 per cent of schools delivered over an hour a week – representing a significant commitment at primary level and boding well for the future of language teaching in these instances – at the other end of the scale 56 per cent delivered less than 30 minutes.

In many cases, the amount of time allocated each week for language learning, combined with the linguistic competency levels of classroom teachers, are unlikely to be sufficient to meet the expectations set out in the new programmes of study. Three quarters of respondents believe that the teaching of reading, writing and grammatical understanding, which are requirements of the new curriculum, will be challenging.

Alongside the introduction of statutory language teaching from September, the new national curriculum will remove the use of assessment levels without offering a replacement. This means that support for language teachers will need to particularly focus on developing effective systems of monitoring and assessing learning. This year’s survey shows that 33 per cent of responding schools (the same proportion as in 2012) do not have systems in place to monitor or assess pupil progress in the foreign language. 

The lack of levels means that for language teachers in primary schools there will be an additional challenge to teaching languages, in terms of also requiring them to devise, adapt or adopt their own means of assessing learning in the subject. 

While teachers support the introduction of compulsory foreign language lessons in primary schools there remain significant concerns and the statutory changes will bring with them a number of wide-reaching implications for both primary and secondary schools. 

There is evidence of a severe lack of cohesion right across the system between primary and secondary schools, both in terms of the provision of languages available at secondaries and the sharing of data between schools. Meanwhile, teachers themselves report a lack of confidence and highlight the challenges that they will face, particularly in terms of teaching reading and writing, which are key components of the new curriculum.

September will bring new challenges for primary language teaching, and while the number of schools already teaching a language or meeting the national curriculum requirements is encouraging, there is nonetheless a large number of not insignificant concerns about the changes to come. It remains to be seen what the best ways to overcome these challenges will be, although it is apparent that much is expected of primary schools themselves in providing the solutions.

  • Alex Elwick is a research officer at CfBT Education Trust.

Further information

Language Trends 2013/14 is the latest in a series of annual reports started in 2002 which chart the health of language teaching in English schools. It was carried out by CfBT Education Trust and the British Council and is available to download from

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