Is the recruitment of language teachers for UK state schools biased against native speakers of the languages, asks Reza Navaei
In order to teach modern foreign language (MFL) courses at state secondary schools in England, which by and large means teaching German, Italian, French or Spanish, prospective applicants must obtain Qualified Teaching Status (QTS). There are many routes available to achieve this, each including a minimum of one-year teacher training. But for all of them, applicants must hold a GCSE in English and maths or equivalent, and sit literacy and numeracy skills tests in English. Only after successful completion of the course are they allowed to teach in state secondaries.
This one-size-fits-all approach seems to disadvantage highly educated, highly capable native linguists, who despite their wealth of knowledge and expertise in their particular language will fall at one of the many bureaucratic hurdles imbedded in the process.
By definition, the requirement to have English and maths GCSEs excludes native speakers of other languages because the majority are educated outside the UK. Although the criteria stipulate that equivalent qualifications are acceptable, in reality most students who have grown up in a non-Anglophone country have studied English as a foreign language (EFL) at school, which means they do not have a qualification equivalent to a GCSE in English.
In addition, applicants with a degree in the language of their country are required to sit an English test that is designed to assess the literacy of native speakers of English. This test is timed and can be taken a maximum of three times before penalties come into force, preventing applicants from retrying. Prospective MFL teachers must take this test even if they can provide proof of their English-language capabilities in the form of an IELTS (or similar) certificate, which enables them to enrol in higher education in the UK.
Applicants are also required to sit a maths exam, which includes timed mental maths questions read to them in audio format in English. These are designed to measure the maths literacy skills of native English speakers, even though MFL applicants wish only to teach a language.
As a result, a native speaker of a foreign language who has a postgraduate degree in English from a UK university, and English-language skills sufficient to teach at British universities and public schools, is likely to be dissuaded from applying. It is not so much the complexity of the test (or lack of it) that is the issue; the question is the off-putting red tape in the process.
Obstacles after training
Once qualified, the focus of MFL teacher recruitment is on the ability to teach at least two languages. So in addition to meeting their subject-matter criteria, MFL teachers need to speak at least one other language to a sufficient level to be able to teach it. Rightly, there is normally no requirement for applicants for maths teaching posts, for example, to show credentials in physics or chemistry. It is therefore disadvantageous to subject-matter experts of, say, German to have to be able to teach French, Italian or Spanish as well.
MFL subject-matter experts are often entrepreneurs with portfolio careers and see teaching as part of their portfolio as a linguist. They wish to teach at state schools alongside lecturing at a language school, taking on occasional translation projects and so on. In the QTS process, a teacher’s commitment to ‘life at school’, and to taking on extracurricular activities in the state-school system, is prioritised over their subject-matter expertise. This makes teaching at state schools even less appealing to high-calibre portfolio career linguists.
It is worth mentioning that these concerns regard the pathway for applicants seeking to qualify in the more commonly taught languages. There are virtually no provisions to attract high-calibre speakers of less commonly taught languages. Yet in today’s multicultural, multilingual society, policies to encourage prospective teachers of such languages would surely be beneficial.
When we need a linguist for any reason other than teaching our children at state schools, we often insist on subject-matter expertise and native-level competency. If we need a linguist to translate or interpret for us, or to teach us a language privately, we favour a subject-matter expert fluent in the relevant language(s). We do not give much weight to the linguist’s ability to do mental maths and demonstrate this in English, or to their ability to speak a third language. It beggars belief that we require these additional credentials for competent native speakers to teach our children a language.
The current process appears to be geared towards encouraging English native speakers with MFL degrees to teach at state schools. It is much easier for them to go on subject-matter enhancing courses provided by QTS facilitators, even if they graduated in the relevant language many years ago. Yet, in a damning report on teacher shortages, the TES found that nearly a quarter of all suitably qualified MFL graduates would have to become teachers over the next six years to meet demand.
The many benefits of language learning in terms of health, character building and the future career of individuals, as well as the economic development and prosperity of nations, are well known. At a time when schools in England are facing “severe” teacher shortages, according to the Education Policy Institute, the current system is clearly not good enough. The TES report found that 47,000 more secondary school teachers are needed by 2024, but the number of people on teacher training courses has fallen by almost 25%.
Despite recent changes to the MFL curriculum, and an upturn in recruitment to training courses this year, my contention is that a serious rethink is needed in terms of the recruitment of language experts, and the way languages are approached at state schools, to reflect the way career linguists work today.
CIOL Vice-Chair of Council Dr Reza Navaei FCIL CL is a multilingual lecturer, writer and training consultant