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


Beyond mentoring; peer coaching by and for teachers. Can it live up to its promise?

Creating opportunities for individual teachers to work together for professional development is a common ambition in schools in England. Mentoring forms a critical learning resource for both pre-service teachers and those newly qualified (NQTs), offering instruction, support and critical friendship, and typically engaging the mentor in making judgements about the new teachers’ practice. Past the NQT phase mentoring is rarely formalised, and a common concern for early career teachers is that they find themselves exposed to the performance management regime of lesson observation, judgement and target setting with fewer sources of personalised support on offer. For some teachers their next experience of such support comes as they proceed through leadership programmes when they are assigned coaches. In between the NQT and aspiring leader stages a gap can open up, which is typically occupied by membership of school professional learning networks, voluntary attendance at TeachMeets, school-based CPD, subject-based training and engagement in moderation activities. For some teachers there is a growing use of social media for ideas, feedback and a chance to share practice.

Peer coaching takes many forms, but a typical rationale is to fill this gap and to enable teachers to share good practice, work on issues they are interested in and to maintain a focus on improving teaching and learning.Coaching is usually distinguished from mentoring in that it can be accessed in between distinct career transition stages and is less likely to be based on forming judgements and linked to performance management, but instead be orientated towards professional development through learning conversations. Some coaching models deliberately locate teachers in pairs and triads across traditional working boundaries (such as subject departments or key stages) while others use coaching as a mechanism to strengthen working practices within these contexts. Sometimes coaching becomes a whole school endeavour involving all teachers, in other schools a team of coaches is established and either as volunteers or through persuasion they work with a cohort of coachees. Coaching frequently includes lesson observations, sometimes extending to the use of video to stimulate discussion. Coaching is often designed to be cyclical, sustaining sequences of plan, do and review; may be collaborative in that participants work together to plan for learning, and is sometimes reciprocal. Importantly most teachers report that they enjoy being coached. What could go wrong when this sounds so flexible, potentially productive and inclusive?

mentoring conversations are sometimes didactic or instructional, driven by target setting and checking

Having researched coaching over a decade it is clear that issues which support and disrupt it affect its perceived and actual success, and the cautionary tales are useful in diagnosing the potential pitfalls. The first of these might be related to the experience that all teachers have of mentoring. Hobson and Malderez, Wilson , Lofthouse and Thomas all found that mentoring can be distorted away from the personal learning needs of the new teacher. The outcome can be that mentoring conversations are sometimes didactic or instructional, driven by target setting and checking, and do not always engage the mentee in proactive participation in professional dialogue. Teachers’ experiences of performance management observation and feedback can be similar. These experiences can be formative creating conversational and behavioural habits that sustain in coaching. Other teachers report that even when coaching starts as a confidential and personalised learning opportunity it gets swept up by the performance management system of the school or ascribed a role linked to the school’s (rather than their own) CPD priorities. Schools are busy places and coaching uses up the most precious resource, that of teachers’ time. Managing this and the expectations that are generated is problematic. Associated with this is the degree to which decisions and actions in schools are expected to generate outcomes to which teachers and school leaders can be held to account. The drive for ‘improvement’ is incessant and as yet there is limited evidence of the direct link between teacher coaching and pupil attainment. We have started to understand these tensions through a CHAT analysis recognising that coaching too frequently fades in the perfomative culture of schools.

So, where does this leave us? Schools will continue to set up coaching, using its promise as a motive. Research gaps include establishing what can be known about the link between coaching and the desired outcomes for learners. As importantly perhaps, at this time of anxiety about teachers’ wellbeing and resilience, there are real reasons to establish whether coaching can address issues beyond teachers’ and pupils’ performance. Watch this space.

RACHEL LOFTHOUSE is the Head of Teacher Learning and Development for the Education section of the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University. She is also partnership development director for the Research Centre for Learning and Teaching (CfLaT). She has a specific interest in professional learning for teachers and educators, based on innovative pedagogies and curriculum design and practices for coaching and mentoring. These support her learners in building their workplace expertise while developing critical reflection and their ability to contribute to, and draw productively on, the evidence base for teaching and learning. She works with student teachers and their school-based mentors, fulltime teachers as part-time Master’s students, international postgraduate students and school leaders. Rachel has published in peer-reviewed journals on the subjects of coaching and mentoring, the innovative use of video to support practice development, practitioner enquiry and professional learning. She has co-authored a successful book, published by Optimus, called Developing Outstanding Teaching and Learning (now in its second edition), which supports teachers and school leaders in improving pedagogy. She also writes regularly for professional publications and websites. Rachel is currently working with a range of educational practitioners, including those interested in community curriculum development and professional coaching for speech and language support in multicultural early years and primary settings. Through these diverse roles she supports individuals to make a positive impact on the educational outcomes for their own learners and communities.

Taken from BERA

Written by Dr Rachel Lofthouse, Head of Teacher Learning and Development (Education Section)