Ofsted identifies barriers to effective MFL provision in key stage 2

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Languages education continues to suffer from a variable quality of provision at key stage 2 and curtailed study at key stage 3, Ofsted has said.

The inspectorate’s latest subject research review has sought to identify the factors that make for high-quality languages teaching and provision.

Language uptake at GCSE and A level has been in decline for two decades following the decision in 2004 to make the subject optional at key stage 4. Indeed, GCSE entries have almost halved since 2005.

In a bid to reverse the decline, since 2014 it has been a statutory requirement for primary schools to teach a language to pupils from age seven. The first cohort to receive this teaching made the transition to secondary school in September 2018.

Languages was also made part of the EBacc. However, we have yet to see a significant impact on uptake at GCSE or A level and entries for GCSE languages reduced by 19 per cent between 2014 and 2018 (although there is evidence of a small increase between 2018 and 2019).

Ofsted’s review finds that there are “complex reasons” why relatively few pupils in England opt to continue studying languages, including issues of “motivation” and the quality of transition between primary and secondary school.

The review says that quality of provision at key stage 2 is “variable”, with “staff expertise, curriculum planning, time allocation and transition cited as barriers”.

There is wide variation in the time allocated to languages in primary schools, with the report giving three warnings:

  • In some schools, the amount of time spent learning languages in year 6 is reduced due to a focus on preparation for SATs.
  • Some schools do not plan a curriculum around making substantial progress in one language.
  • There are deficits in developing subject knowledge; teachers’ subject knowledge is an area needing greater focus.

Meanwhile, Ofsted warns that while language study is obligatory at key stage 3, the trend in some state schools to bring GCSE choices forward to year 8 means that teaching is curtailed.

The review quotes the 2019 British Council Languages Trends report: “The trend to bring forward GCSE choices to year 8 in some state schools has meant that ‘large numbers of pupils are receiving only two years of language teaching in key stage 3 in secondary school’.

It adds that “33 per cent of state secondary schools have groups of year 9 pupils whose language education has already effectively been terminated”.

Furthermore, there is a trend for girls and high prior attaining pupils to take languages, with other groups under-represented. Inspectors are worried that schools may be making assumptions that certain pupils are not able to do well in languages, such as those with lower prior attainment or SEND.

The report states: “Many studies suggest that pupils’ perceptions of their lack of success in languages are linked to a lack of belief in their ability and a lack of clarity about how they can improve. Studies show that pupils’ self-efficacy consistently results in academic achievement more than other motivational factors. It also improves their language proficiency.”

It contends that “good curriculum design” is a vital factor for ensuring that pupils securely learn the vocabulary, grammar and phonics that will allow them to manipulate the language for themselves.

Ofsted’s report has been published ahead of a more in-depth study into how languages are taught in England’s school, due out next year.

Other common features of successful approaches to languages education identified in the review include:

  • The curriculum is carefully planned around logical pupil progression in the “three pillars” of language: phonics, vocabulary, grammar.
  • Teachers’ use of the language being taught is carefully planned and tailored to build on pupils’ ability and prior knowledge.
  • Teachers create opportunities for pupils to practise using the target language, helping them to remember long term the language structures they need to communicate in an unscripted way.
  • When authentic texts are used, they are well chosen for their linguistic content and level. Teachers plan their use carefully, ensuring that they do not expose pupils to large amounts of unfamiliar language.
  • Error correction is explicit where the focus is on accuracy: pupils are prompted that there has been an error and their own correction is elicited.
  • Assessments are carefully designed to align to a clearly structured and sequenced curriculum.
  • School leaders are committed to ensuring that language teachers have both a strong understanding of curriculum progression in languages and strong subject knowledge.
  • There is a well-considered transition process between primary and secondary, and a curriculum that builds step-by-step across key stages.

Chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, said: “Learning a second language can provide pupils with many wonderful opportunities and is a great discipline in itself. But we know that many pupils find languages difficult, or struggle to see the relevance of another language in their lives. Whatever the reasons, many barriers still need to be overcome before languages can really flourish in English schools.

“For pupils to broaden their horizons, converse with people from other countries and explore other cultures, we need schools to build firm foundations in language learning.”

  • Ofsted: Research and analysis: Curriculum research review series: Languages, June 2021: https://bit.ly/3itknp9

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