Story by Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt for The Guardian, September 30, 2011:
The education secretary, Michael Gove, has proposed that every child aged five or over should be learning a foreign language, and promised to “pull every lever”, including encouraging longer school days, to make it happen.
In a pre-Conservative conference interview, he says: “There is a slam-dunk case for extending foreign language teaching to children aged five.
“Just as some people have taken a perverse pride in not understanding mathematics, so we have taken a perverse pride in the fact that we do not speak foreign languages, and we just need to speak louder in English. It is literally the case that learning languages makes you smarter. The neural networks in the brain strengthen as a result of language learning.”
In the interview he also:
• Urges more schools to follow the example of academies by extending the school day, for example by adding five hours’ extra learning a week – or six weeks a year.
• Calls for tougher, less means-tested, fines for parents of persistent school truants so that parental income needed “for satellite TVs, cigarette consumption or alcohol” is no longer taken into account in setting the fine. He also proposes schools or local authorities being entitled to bring prosecutions against parents of truants.
• Says he is prepared for the political flak when A-level results fall, probably next year, as a result of introducing a tougher exam, including fewer bite-sized chunks.
• Urges his party not to respond to the constraints of the coalition with the Liberal Democrats “by doing the things that make the most atavistic parts of our party cheer up”. He insisted the Conservative relationship with the Lib Dems “should be beyond businesslike, and instead be understanding and be appreciative of what they bring”.
Arguing that the whole education system needs to be reorientated towards language teaching, Gove says he expects the national curriculum review to look at whether there should be more subject-specialist teaching in primary schools.
He says that almost every other advanced country teaches children a foreign language from the age of five, adding Britain “has to set itself the same ambitious, but not impossible target”.
“One of the problems we have had in education, and as a country, is that we have been too insular for too long.”
Gove says the reform will require changes to teacher training, as well as encouraging teaching schools that take over chains of schools to promote languages.
Gove pointed out that schools in some deprived areas, such as parts of Nottingham, were already teaching Spanish at the age of five, and if it was possible for these schools, it should be possible nationwide.
“If we pull all the levers, change teacher training, help training schools to support others to go down this path, get schools that have language potential to take over under-performing schools, and we move the curriculum review in the right direction, then we can move towards the goal. The number of pupils sitting a language GCSE plummeted from 444,700 in the summer of 1998 to 273,000 in 2010. Learning a foreign language, and the culture that goes with it, is one of the most useful things we can do to broaden the empathy and imaginative sympathy and cultural outlook of children.”
Gove also says: “One of the problems we have is children are not in school long enough in the day and during the year.”
He says he has been encouraged that free schools and many academies are using the freedoms they have been given to expand the length of the day, adding that this is hugely popular with parents and gives children the chance of a richer educational experience.
Teachers are currently contracted to teach 1,265 hours a year – 195 days of which have to be teaching days.
Gove says he recognises there could be resistance from teaching unions, but claims inspirational headteachers are taking staff with them on the issue.
“More and more of the young teachers coming into the profession do so because they are idealistic – they want to work as long as it takes to help children succeed. If teachers know the Department of Education are on their side to help them, then any staffroom voices saying ‘don’t go the extra mile’ will be a diminishing force.”
He also heralded changes to the benefit system so that parents of persistent truants are more clearly punished.
“At present, if parents are fined for children not attending school, there is a high level of non-compliance – and when it comes to means-test calculation of the fine to be paid, they knock a bit off for cigarette consumption, alcohol consumption and satellite TV subscriptions. The whole system does not send out a signal that encourages personal and parental responsibility. So we are looking at the fine structure, the effectiveness of how we follow up, and how we can broaden the range of institutions that can bring prosecutions, or initiate proceedings.”
Publication of truancy figures in primary schools, tightening the definitions of persistent truancy and making truancy a larger part of a school’s assessment, would also ratchet up the pressure, he said.