Schools trying to organise language exchange trips face increasing hurdles including costs, visas and “unclear” government guidance on safeguarding, according to speakers at a Westminster education forum held today in London.
The “dull” content of modern foreign languages lessons, which one delegate said was “intellectually insulting” to pupils, was being made worse by a decline in exchange trips that would otherwise bring vocabulary to life.
Mike Buchanan, chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference for independent schools (HMC), told teachers and policy makers that “the bureaucracy and hurdles in the way of exchange visits is killing them”.
Buchanan, who is also headteacher of Ashford school in Kent, said the desire among teachers to organise trips “had not diminished” but guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) – Keeping Children Safe in Education – updated in September last year was “less clear” on the issue of foreign exchange trips than previously and placed an onus on schools to carry out vetting and barring checks on host families in England.
“The impact is that schools are less inclined to engage in exchanges and trips.”
Aside from criminal records bureau (CRB) checks, the costs of exchange trips was also a “block” on school budgets, said other speakers.
Darren Northcott, national officer for education at teachers’ union NASUWT, said schools’ reluctance to charge pupils for exchange trips had a more chilling effect on them than bureaucracy.
His words were echoed by Rebecca Clark, director of TESLA teaching school alliance at Bohunt school in Hampshire, who added visas could become more costly after the vote to leave the European Union.
“I do think there is a future concern about the expense to schools of visas post-Brexit. There’s an issue of parents who are signing up children now assuming it will cost the same in the next few years, when it might not.”
Pupils at Bohunt school still went on exchange trips to China despite the “significant investment” in the visa process because of the positive effects of a homestay with native speakers, she added.
Kate Heery, head of modern languages at Cheam high school in Surrey, said exchange trips were also in decline for her pupils. She added many were “demotivated” by the “lack of cognitive challenge” in classrooms and exams.
“In history they’re looking at expansionism, in English they’re doing creative writing, and in French they’re talking about their holiday. It’s intellectually insulting to young people, and many of our pupils do not get the chance to go on holiday anyway.”
there is a future concern about the expense of visas post-Brexit
In the past, pupils had gone on foreign languages work schemes including visits to multinational technology company Siemens, or working in a German hotel in year 10 – all of which had ended amid the drive for league table rankings, added Heery.
Pupils’ lack of enjoyment of language lessons was highlighted to delegates by Ian Bauckham, chair of the review of modern foreign language pedagogy in key stage 3 and 4 by the Teaching Schools Council published in November last year.
He cited Ofsted’s 2015 report, Key Stage 3: The Wasted Years, which found that cognitive challenge made pupils choose a subject more than a perception of its “usefulness” for future jobs.
“We need more horizon-widening material. A pupil will not see the purpose of describing their bedroom.”
Judith Rowland-Jones, head of curriculum for languages at AQA, said the exam board wanted a greater emphasis on “expressing and developing thoughts and ideas spontaneously and fluently”, adding this was “different to the rote-learning in assessment at the moment.”
“We need to develop an awareness of the culture and identity of the country. This is what students enjoy most and what teachers enjoy teaching most.”
But safeguarding remained a concern for overseas visits. David Shanks, a modern foreign languages consultant and leading practitioner for the Harris Federation, said some headteachers were so fearful they “simply wouldn’t go to Paris” following terrorist attacks in November last year.