Primary cuts

Amanda Barton considers the impact of reductions in primary school funding on language provision

It is more than three years since the study of a modern or ancient language became statutory during the last four years of primary school in England. The latest Language Trends survey by the British Council shows that there have been numerous positive developments: in the sample of 727 primary schools, more than 99% are teaching

a language as part of the curriculum, while 88% of respondents expressed “whole-hearted commitment to primary languages”.1

However, the survey makes no attempt to gloss over the considerable challenges that remain and which, in some cases, have been compounded by an uncertain economic climate. Since 2015 school budgets have been cut by £2.7 billion in real terms. Many schools will suffer further losses following the introduction of the government’s new national funding formula in 2018; schools in London are among those set to be the worst affected. Against this backdrop, there is now a growing body of evidence that modern foreign languages (MFL) at primary level are being severely impacted by budget cuts.

Only six schools in the survey sample were not teaching a language at all. However, as the report points out, this may not be an accurate reflection of the national picture, since schools teaching a language were more likely to respond. Finance has been added to the reasons why a primary school may not offer a language, and one of the six schools no longer teaching a language commented: “The finances, lack of expertise and pressure on performance targets all impact on our decision.” Even in those schools with a strong history of MFL teaching, provision may be patchy and may not have seen improvement, as one respondent commented: “It’s so frustrating to see what has been built up over a number of years wither away.”


Curriculum time
Inadequate time is one of the biggest constraints on provision of languages. A recent report commissioned by Ofsted, the schools regulator, looked at a sample of 106 inspected primary schools and found that 73 spent less than an hour a week on foreign language learning.2 According to the Language Trends survey, around 80% of schools dedicate 30-60 minutes a week to languages, while 10% do not provide even the minimal 30 minutes’ language tuition in Key Stage 2 (ages 7-11).

A number of respondents used the word ‘inconsistent’ to describe the allocation of curriculum time to languages. There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that pupils in Year 6 are only taught a language after their SATs, towards the end of the school year.


Staff cuts
With a third of state schools now experiencing a cash deficit, there is some evidence that staffing is being cut. One primary French teacher said: “I have found that cuts have impacted. I am teaching French to Year 5 and 6 classes only now, as the budget won’t stretch to Year 3 and 4. At the moment, they are not receiving anything. Hopefully, that will change throughout the year when I have done some staff training. Some of my friends who teach in primary schools have specialist teachers who come in but some are now having to teach it themselves.”

It is not uncommon for schools to employ a language specialist Teaching Assistant (TA) as the Subject Lead and have them teach languages during teachers’ Planning, Preparation and Assessment time. Funding cuts have resulted in a number of redundancies of TAs, with an inevitable impact on languages provision.

Furthermore, some primary schools that had previously relied on a secondary school for staffing or support are being forced to terminate the arrangement for financial reasons. Schools are being forced to look in-house for their MFL provision; where teachers’ subject knowledge is insufficient, or staff lack confidence, provision may cease altogether.

Juliet Green, a primary languages specialist in West Yorkshire, was recently made redundant from the school where she was teaching all classes across Key Stage 2 (KS2) for 45 minutes a week. She describes how languages were seen as an optional ‘add-on’, rather than a statutory area of the curriculum. Observing how staff were struggling to continue with language provision she made the unusual decision of returning to the school on a voluntary basis, although her teaching time has been reduced to 30 minutes per class.

In addition to the loss of staff, a decrease in the number of primary teachers attending continuing professional development (CPD) sessions was also reported, with 30% of respondents stating that they had no access to specialist support, compared to 23% in 2015. For some, this was due to a lack of funding: “We did attend network meetings until funding was withdrawn from the local authority.” Another commented: “We would like CPD but funding for training is not available.”

There is also evidence to suggest that primary teachers now have reduced access to funding to promote their subject knowledge – a priority for many non-specialists. One teacher explained: “I would like to see more funding made available by the government for teaching languages in order to have more support from specialist teachers. It is hard to motivate teachers who are unconfident about teaching languages and have little time to teach it.”


Inadequate assessments
Informal assessment of language learning is much more common than formal assessment, according to the survey, and for some schools this is still an ‘area of development’. Louisa Dawes, Lecturer in Education in Modern Languages at the University of Manchester, leads professional development for primary teachers.

She identifies the following problems: “Primary teachers are very comfortable and confident with assessment in other areas of the primary curriculum, but less so in MFL. The requirement to show progress and collect evidence is problematic in a way that it isn’t in maths and English simply because staff struggle to find assessment windows. Also, staff are lacking in confidence.”

Where primary schools are able to work collaboratively and with the support of secondary schools, assessment practices are much more robust. Dr Rachel Hawkes, Executive Director of International Education and Research at Comberton Academy Trust in Cambridge, describes how schools in a Multi-Academy Trust can work together: “We have termly primary languages liaison meetings and an ‘in common’ assessment at Easter of Y6 which we have agreed the conditions for. Transition information on content/grammar, i.e. what has been taught, and then assessment of how well students have grasped it in three bands (+, =, -) is provided by all.”

A lack of sound assessment at KS2 may contribute to poor progression when pupils move on to Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14). The Language Trends survey refers to “A wide gulf of understanding between primary and secondary schools,” and offers little hope for the future: “The barriers primary and secondary schools face in working with each other to achieve a smooth transition in languages from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 3 have been well-rehearsed, but there is little impetus or direction to improve.”


Looking ahead
The increased challenges primary schools face in teaching MFL should not obscure the commendable work that is being done in the sector. Pupils’ enthusiasm for MFL is beyond doubt and teacher respondents to the survey describe the cognitive benefits for learners as well as gains in pupils’ confidence and understanding about the world.

Professor Anna Lise Gordon, President of the Association for Language Learning (ALL), agrees: “There is little doubt that budget cuts are having an impact on staffing levels and curriculum provision in many primary and secondary schools. But there is much positive activity across the country, and there is always more work to do to inspire young people of all ages in their language learning.”

Some evidence suggests that cuts are encouraging more schools, and not just those in academy trusts, to work collaboratively, generating benefits to practice, such as that outlined above. A strong argument for increasing the curriculum time allocated to language learning presents itself in the Language Trends survey: schools who teach languages for less than 30 minutes a week were more likely to have lower levels of educational attainment overall.

Funding issues are unlikely to disappear quickly. The National Audit Office claims that schools face further cuts of 8% in real terms by 2019-20. Teachers have the unenviable task of persuading senior managers of the value of including the subject in an overcrowded curriculum, and of raising its profile in the fallout of the EU referendum.

It is to be hoped that the provision of languages in primary schools will not face the same demise as in Northern Ireland, where a lack of funding saw the subject being withdrawn in 2015.



1 Board, K & Tinsley, T (2017) ‘Language Trends 2016/17. Language teaching in primary and secondary schools in England’. Survey Report, British Council

2 Ofsted (2016) ‘Foreign Languages and Science Provision in Primary Schools’