The Oak National Academy came about over a very short timescale during the Easter holiday as a spontaneous coming together of a number of academy trusts around the country in response to the growing awareness that during the ongoing lockdown period many schools would struggle to provide full online teaching for their pupils. There was a strong consensus that ‘setting work’ would only be effective in keeping learning going for a short period, whereas having a teacher on video explaining new material and providing questioning and opportunities for practice would be the ‘gold standard’. The trusts involved have some capacity, and wanted to pull together a fully functioning virtual school to be a resource to fellow teachers and other schools and their pupils.
Languages are clearly a central part of the curriculum and there are some unique challenges associated with MFL in this context. Firstly, there are a number of possible languages which pupils may be learning, and in the time and with the resource available to us we could not manage a teaching programme in all of them, so we picked French and Spanish for secondary as these have the largest numbers and would respond to the greatest need numerically. Another issue was that, for KS2 and KS3, there is no clearly defined content which would be taught, even in the common languages. (This is very different from, for example Maths, Science or English where the National Curriculum provides quite detailed content).
This left tricky choices: in primary, we chose Spanish and effectively offered ab initio for each year group. This, we thought, would provide some MFL experience for all those who had not done Spanish in KS2, and might provide some consolidation for those who had, but we know it is not ideal for KS2 pupils who may have been following a well-planned, tightly sequenced and content-rich Spanish course already, as it would be too easy for them.
In Secondary we have tried to put together a French and Spanish programme that looks roughly like the sorts of KS3 and early GCSE programmes that many pupils will be familiar with, so as to provide the simplest possible transition for them.
The curriculum offer is being constantly refined and expanded and MFL is certainly on the list, so ALL members can expect to see further developments in the weeks ahead.
If there is one question we might take away from this experience, it would be whether there is a need to create a stronger national consensus about the actual content to be taught in languages at least in each key stage (2, 3 and GCSE) and ideally year by year? If there were, it would mean that, should something like this happen again, it would be much easier to move learning online in a coordinated national way with some confidence that we are building sequentially on previously covered content. It might also, by the way, make movement between schools, and the education of children who are not in school for whatever reason, much easier to manage without loss of learning.
Written by Ian Bauckham CBE, who is the Chair of Oak National Academy.
If you have thoughts or views about the questions raised in this article please let us know about them info@ALL-languages.org.uk and we will share them with other readers.