The challenges and realities of implementing compulsory language learning in schools

René Koglbauer is Senior Lecturer in the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences (ECLS). He is also Deputy Head and Director of Operations of the School and Director of the North Leadership Centre. In this blog, he argues that the proposed changes to the teaching of modern foreign languages in our schools should not be rushed, and that we should engage in active discussions with practitioners, school leaders, researchers and subject associations to make this a successful change.

Two schoolgirls concentrated on their task with notebook

Two schoolgirls concentrated on their task with notebook

What’s the problem?

Since the majority Conservative Government were elected in May, there has been more discussion on the role of languages in schools. Most recently, Schools Minister Nick Gibb MP outlined proposals to reintroduce compulsory language learning in schools. It’s positive to see that the Government are recognising the importance of language learning and to re-position the unique knowledge and skills it brings to the secondary school curriculum. However, should this policy go ahead, we must ensure this isn’t rushed.

There has been a shortage of language teachers in recent years. In the last two years alone, recruitment targets for teacher training places haven’t been met, with 16% going empty for the 2014-15 cohort and the forecast for the coming academic year suggesting a continued decline in applications and consequently in filling allocated training places.

There is also the problem of resources. Recent and proposed cuts mean that an average school will likely struggle to fund the facilities and materials needed. With Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw calling for text books to ‘re-enter’ classrooms, there is further pressure on resources.

We also need to consider whether a single, more rigorous GCSE exam is the right way forward for this policy. Nicky Morgan announced last week that EBacc students will have to gain a grade 5 – equivalent to a low B or high C. What is seen as a ‘good mark’ has therefore risen further. It’s time to get more creative with assessment, looking at how we can keep diverse learners motivated and supported throughout their learning journey.

What’s the solution?

The Government has suggested that where language participation figures don’t improve, schools won’t be able to achieve top grading. Is this really the best approach to motivate and encourage a positive working culture? To get teachers and school leaders on-board, we must not force this onto them too quickly. We need a slower, step-by-step approach, ensuring that change is fully understood, embraced and driven by the school, its culture and its communities, rather than being imposed from outside.

Unless the right implementation is put in place, we risk losing these valuable opportunities to get languages back at the heart of the school curriculum. If we rush and use the stick rather than the carrot, we will simply see demotivated and frustrated teachers, pupils, parents and school leaders. We must engage in active discussion with practitioners, school leaders, researchers and subject associations to make this a successful change.

Taken from the Newcastle University Institute for Social Renewal Blog

Written by Rene Koglbauer, Deputy Head and Director of Operations of ECLS, Director of North Leadership Centre


Using the physical environment to improve education

It might seem as if buildings, the physical location of education, are of only tangential interest to an education researcher: something that can be left to architects in the same way as the human bodies of teachers remain the preserve of biologists.  However, as I will demonstrate, the settings for education, are linked to the practices and outcomes of teaching and learning, both directly and indirectly.  Importantly, the complexity of the relationship suggests the need for developing shared, cross-disciplinary understandings, rather than the adoption of design recipes or reliance on isolated architectural expertise.  There is evidence of physical environments being drivers and enablers of change, but most convincingly when alterations to the setting are integrated with other developments.   Researchers and practitioners of education, therefore, need to think more about actual and possible spaces and places of education.

A fundamental finding is that quality of physical environment broadly correlates with student outcomes, such as attendance, behaviour and achievement (Durán-Narucki, 2008; Kumar et al., 2008; Woolner et al., 2007).  But this is a correlational, not a simple causal, relationship.  It seems to be more about poor environments having negative effects, as opposed to good environments enhancing learning or teaching.  Indeed, defining a ‘good learning environment’ is problematic because its success depends on what you are trying to achieve, with different sorts of learning making different demands on the setting.  This relationship ranges from the banal observation of different environments for PE, science and music, to the more interesting research finding that traditional classrooms tend to be used for teacher-centred teaching while more collaborative learning, as well as teaching, happens in alternative set-ups (Horne-Martin, 2002;Sigurðardóttir & Hjartson, 2011).

Changing the physical setting can be an important part of educational innovations: supporting initial change, then embedding and sustaining new practices of teaching and learning

The next elements to my argument, though, are to note that space does not determine behaviour, although it may influence, and, in contrast, that people can alter space to try to make it fit their intended behaviour.  Individual teachers do this on a small scale whenever they reshuffle classroom furniture, and there is evidence of innovative and effective schools making active use of their setting, reorganising or adjusting as needed to support their educational endeavours (Uline et al., 2009; Rutter et al., 1979).  Changing the physical setting can be an important part of educational innovations: supporting initial change, then embedding and sustaining new practices of teaching and learning.  This role seems most pronounced when the attempted change integrates alterations across social, organisational and physical elements, with development of timetabling, curriculum, staffing and space, for example, pursued as a coherent whole, not as fragmented initiatives.

These sorts of multi-strand changes seem to benefit particularly from including the physical setting because changed space is a tangible sign of the more implicit alterations, and also has the power to inspire and support further innovation.  In a school programme we evaluated (Open Futures: see Woolner & Tiplady, 2014), a very visible school garden was co-opted by a languages teacher to support vocabulary learning through labelling the vegetables in French and as a head teacher in another school put it: “If you’ve got that infrastructure, you can use it and you want to use it don’t you?”.

Thus, while professionals from outside education who design educational settings undoubtedly need to understand teaching and learning, it is equally important that educationalists attempting pedagogical innovation or improvement consider how the physical environment is, or could be, involved.


Durán-Narucki, V. (2008). School building condition, school attendance, and academic achievement in New York City public schools: A mediation model. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 28(3): 278–286.

Horne-Martin, S. (2002). The classroom environment and its effects on the practice of teachers. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 22: 139–156.

Kumar, R., O’Malley, P. M., & Johnston, L. D. (2008). Association between physical environment of second­ary schools and student problem behaviour. Environment and Behavior, 40(4): 455–486.

Rutter, M., Maughan, B., Mortimore, P. & Ouston, J. (1979) Fifteen thousand hours: secondary schools and their effects on children, London: Open Books.

Sigurðardóttir, A.K.&Hjartson,T(2011). School buildings for the 21st century. Some features of new school buildings in Iceland.CEPS Journal, 1(2):25-43.

Uline, C. L., Tschannen-Moran, M., & De Vere Wolsey, T. (2009). The walls still speak: The stories occu­pants tell. Journal of Educational Administration, 47(3): 400–426.

Woolner, P., Hall, E., Wall, K., Higgins, S., & McCaughey, C. (2007). A sound foundation? What we know about the impact of environments on learning and the implications for Building Schools for the Future. Oxford Review of Education, 33(1): 47–70.

Woolner, P. and Tiplady, L. (2014) Adapting School Premises as Part of a Complex Pedagogical Change Programme, ECER, 2 – 5 September, Porto, Portugal.


Taken from BERA

Written by Pamela Woolner, Lecturer in Education

Labelling children ‘dyslexic’ could hinder teachers

To what extent do teachers’ beliefs affect their ability to develop successful classroom practice over time? This question is relevant to many aspects of teachers’ roles. Our interest was in understanding how teachers feel about how they see their ability to support children with reading difficulties. Supporting children to learn to read is seen as a critical component of primary education and as the development of polices around teaching reading through phonics have shaped practice in state schools in England it is in the spotlight more than ever. At the same time there is a sustained anxiety amongst some parents to find a reason, in the form of a label, for the difficulties their children experience.

In our recent investigation we surveyed the beliefs of teachers in primary schools in the North-east of England in relation to supporting children who struggle with learning to read

From our perspectives as academic educational psychologists we are interested in what is known as ‘efficacy beliefs’ which can be defined as the teacher’s individual belief that they can act to make a positive difference. In our recent investigation we surveyed the beliefs of teachers in primary schools in the North-east of England in relation to supporting children who struggle with learning to read. Our questionnaires were designed to elicit responses indicative of teachers’ beliefs that they could do things that would make a difference for these children (their efficacy beliefs). We were also interested in whether or not they thought difficulties with reading were ‘essentially’ biologically distinct and immutable.

Two versions of the questionnaires were developed. In one version children were described as having ‘reading difficulties’. In the second version the words ‘reading difficulties’ were replaced by the word ‘dyslexia’. From all teaching staff in 23 primary schools in the NE of England an opportunity sample of 267 teachers (just over half of all the teachers in these schools) agreed to participate. Schools were matched by number on roll, number of children entitled to Free School Meals (FSM), and number of children labelled as having Special Educational Needs (having statements of special educational needs). All teachers in a school were invited to respond to one variant of the questionnaires. Teachers in a matching school were asked to complete the alternative variant.

We found that when presented with the ‘dyslexia’ variants teachers’ beliefs about being able to do things to achieve appropriate outcomes (their efficacy beliefs) were a) closely associated with responses to items that revealed beliefs that ‘dyslexia’ was biologically determined, immutable and culturally specific; and b) that their beliefs in their efficacy did not increase with experience.

On the other hand, when presented with items describing children as having ‘reading difficulties’ teachers’ efficacy beliefs about being able to motivate and engage children in appropriate tasks were only weakly associated with an element of essentialism we termed ‘cultural specificity’. However, more significantly for us these teachers’ beliefs in their efficacy increased with greater experience.

we suggest that ‘reading difficulties’ may be a more positively helpful label (if any labels can be helpful) than ‘dyslexia’

This may have importance since in general when teachers profess stronger efficacy beliefs these have been associated with better outcomes for children. It is reasonable to anticipate that teachers in their professional careers will encounter a number of children who find it harder than some others to acquire skills in aspects of literacy. Our research suggests that if such children are described as having ‘dyslexia’, then, all others things being equal, teachers appear to be unlikely to gain in confidence that they can intervene effectively. Accordingly we suggest that ‘reading difficulties’ may be a more positively helpful label (if any labels can be helpful) than ‘dyslexia’. The reason we would offer conclusion is that this seems to open the door to a virtuous circle of increasing teacher efficacy beliefs as teachers accumulate experience of work working successfully with children having ‘reading difficulties’. Our proposition is that this could lead to better outcomes for children.

We have just published the study of teachers’ beliefs about teaching children who have some form of difficulty with reading (Gibbs, S. & Elliott, J. (2015) The differential effects of labelling: How do ‘dyslexia’ and ‘reading difficulties’ affect teachers’ beliefs? European Journal of Special Needs Education (In Press) doi:

Dr Simon Gibbs is Reader in Educational Psychology at Newcastle University and is Programme Director for Initial Training in Educational Psychology in Newcastle (the Doctorate in Applied Educational Psychology). His professional and research interests are in developing a greater understanding of how psychology can be deployed to enhance education, the well-being of teachers and their students. He has for some time been fascinated by how reading does (and does not develop) and the beliefs of teachers that enable (and inhibit) reflection and developments in their classroom practice.

Taken from BERA

Written by Simon Gibbs, Reader in Educational Psychology