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I still contend that foreign languages are a special case. Our main problem in this subject area is motivation. The British are the worst performers in foreign languages in Europe, in spite of all the changes that have taken place in language teaching methodology over the last 50 years, in spite of the National Curriculum, in spite of the introduction of mixed ability teaching, in spite of the application of new technologies such as the language lab and the computer lab. Rather than getting better at foreign languages we are getting worse. As soon as the DfES announced that foreign languages would not be compulsory beyond Key Stage 3 in state schools in England (note: England, NOT Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), senior managers hastened to push foreign languages off the curriculum in order to bump up their performance tables figures - because GCSE results in foreign languages tend to be so poor. Now only 25% of kids in state schools in England are taking a GCSE in a foreign language. In one northern English city there is a school where the figure is just 18%.

I have taught in schools in London and also in rural Devon. Working class city kids have almost no interest in foreign languages. Many of them can barely communicate in English - which is not a good starting point. Rural kids are difficult to motivate. As one poorly performing child (son of a Devon farmer) said to me when I reprimanded him for his dreadful exam performance: "I don't need German to talk to a cow."

On the Continent motivation is less of a problem. In many countries you can't get a job if you don't speak English. In addition, English language pop culture and English language films capture the imagination of young people and encourage them to learn English. Go to any popular holiday resort on the Continent and you are surrounded by signs in English. I don't see much French or German on signs in the UK - maybe "Tenez la gauche" or "Links fahren" on the M20 coming out of Dover. Our local council began to translate some of its signs into French and German. One of them was sign in a multi-storey car park warning drivers against car theft. There were three glaring mistakes in the French version and four in the German version, one of which made the message sound laughable.

I give up!

Surely, its less about the set one is put in and more about the quality of teaching and learning. I was an advocate of mixed ability teaching for many years. Some of my students persuaded me otherwise to some extent. One student in particular said that most students are well aware of their ability. He said he would rather be taught amongt students of a similar ability rather than stuggle amongst those who were clearly more able.

I might even have enjoyed PE lessons myself had a similar approach been taken when I was at school.

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Surely, its less about the set one is put in and more about the quality of teaching and learning. I was an advocate of mixed ability teaching for many years. Some of my students persuaded me otherwise to some extent. One student in particular said that most students are well aware of their ability. He said he would rather be taught amongt students of a similar ability rather than stuggle amongst those who were clearly more able.

I might even have enjoyed PE lessons myself had a similar approach been taken when I was at school.

It is true that some children argue that they rather be placed in “sets” or “bands”. However, this is usually the more able who dislike the disruption that some low ability children cause in class. I accept that the most able are helped by setting (although it usually has the bi-product of making them arrogant). However, research shows that it has a devastated impact on the self-confidence and self-image on those outside the top set. The “labeling” impact creates serious long-term problems. Most teachers are usually former high-achieving students. They are also products of private or grammar schools or a “banded” comprehensive school. They have little experience of being in a low-ability group. As a result, they find it difficult to teach these groups. A problem caused largely by a lack of empathy.

I failed my 11+ and had to endure being taught in low-ability classes. Peer group pressure was such in the secondary schools that I attended, that it was virtually impossible to show any interest in the subject. Combined by being taught by teachers who thought you were “thick” because you had failed your 11+, you had no chance. Therefore I had to leave school in order to get a decent education.

The first two schools I taught in were both true comprehensive schools. That is, mixed ability teaching group (those with special needs were taught in different classes). This system works as long as you have teachers who believe in the system (grammar school educated teachers were always a problem because of their elitist ideas). However, over the last few years, most comprehensive schools have abandoned the basic ideas behind comprehensive education and they have been turned into grammar and secondary modern schools under the same roof.

Blair’s new education act is an attempt to revert back to the grammar/secondary system. That is why the Labour Party is virtually united against it while the Tory Party supports the new measures.

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