Alastair Falk: Modern Foreign Language Teaching

Alastair Falk, Executive Director of Partnerships for Jewish Schools (PaJeS) - a division of the JLC - outlines the communal response to the Government's shifting approach to the teaching of Hebrew in schools.

The Secretary of State for Education takes a robust attitude towards halting the decline of modern foreign language teaching. Not only has he included a language in the new suite of qualifications schools must offer all secondary pupils, but he has also spearheaded the introduction of compulsory modern foreign language teaching in primary schools. When this policy was first announced 2011, the Jewish Curriculum Partnership (now part of PaJeS/JLC) seized the opportunity to work with Ivrit teachers in Jewish primary schools and offer them a programme of training and new resources. This reflected the JLC Schools Commission recommendation that schools should be encouraged to offer Ivrit, for which they would need to feel confident about resources and support. JCP began work with 30 Jewish primary schools, utilising expert input from language advisory services and Universities. They also received support from a major foundation to develop a new interactive resource, based on similar material for French and Spanish.

Last month this work was thrown into confusion with the proposal that the current list of languages should be replaced with a prescribed list of seven, one of which schools would have to choose to teach. This list did not include Modern Hebrew. Nor did it contain classical Hebrew, although schools could choose a classical language instead of a modern one. Although schools would be allowed to teach a second language, timetabling and resource implications would make it increasingly difficult for schools to capitalise on the development work that had been invested in so heavily in recent years. A restricted list also flies in the face of the policy of increased school autonomy that has been another hallmark of this Government's outlook. Indeed, free schools and Academies are exempt from this prescribed approach.

Working through the Board of Deputies therefore, we helped construct a serious and thoughtful response to this issue and to alert schools and parents to the problems this policy could cause. They pointed out that 'almost every Jewish Primary school in the UK teaches Ivrit as a modern foreign language, and many have been doing so for years. This is an integral part of the ethos of these schools, and the heritage of the pupils. It generally falls under the secular curriculum rather than the religious studies curriculum. It is an important factor when parents make the decision to send their children to a Jewish school. In a number of cases, parental pressure led to Jewish schools deciding to switch from French to Ivrit a couple of years ago, with the expectation that the teaching of a modern foreign language at primary school would become statutory, and that schools would be allowed to choose the language that best suited them, over the last few years a huge amount of time, effort and money has been spent on improving the quality of Ivrit teaching and learning in primary schools and raising attainment. Schools, parents and Governors seem have responded positively to this campaign. There has been a strong response to this consultation. The suggested response was not suddenly to add Hebrew to the list, but to reply negatively to the question on whether there should be a restrictive list, and then explain why Hebrew was so important to Jewish schools. The campaign is a good example of how PaJeS and JLC works with the Board on a matter of shared concern. Should the responses to the consultation prove unsuccessful we will take the campaign forward in other ways.