Photo by Lorenzo Vecchia
English in schools
After decades of neglect, in 2007 the Catalan government decided to take English teaching seriously with an ambitious €m221.3 million project for its schools. The ‘Pla d’Anglès’ (English Plan) aims to ensure that by 2014, 16 year olds will be leaving Catalan schools with at least a basic grasp of the English language; and those who study after that age will reach an upper-intermediate level.
Two years on, and the Generalitat has announced plans to take things a step further by teaching English to children as young as six years old, as well as have some non-language classes taught in English for the first time.
Grand plans to promote what the Generalitat calls ‘the third language’ have been introduced slowly, but this year sees a significant expansion on the last. Eight hundred schools—double the number of 2008—have been specially selected to promote English involving around 261,000 pupils across both primary and secondary schools. At the launch of the programme, Catalan Minister of Education Ernest Maragall spelled out the plan’s lofty targets. “The objective is for pupils to finish secondary school with a basic level, and to finish baccalaureate or professional training at a level equivalent to fourth level [upper intermediate] in a language school, which is considerably high.”
The obvious question this presents is where will the teachers come from? The Generalitat estimates it needs around 15,000 teachers able to teach English in Catalan schools by 2010 to reach its target. At least a third of these will also be expected to teach several non-language subjects in English. The answer, according to Generalitat policy-makers, is to get the current teaching staff up to speed by sending 9,000 of them on intensive English training courses. These are currently being split between the Escola Oficial d’Idiomes, summer courses abroad and European exchanges. In addition, about 500 native English-speaking classroom assistants will be recruited to primary and secondary schools, while native teachers from private language schools and even Erasmus students will be employed to give conversation classes in state schools.
Such an ambitious plan has elicited some scepticism from within the English-teaching industry, and teaching associations in general. Rosa Cañadell of the Unío Sindical de Treballadors de l’Ensenyament de Catalunya (USTEC), the public education trade union, believes the new plan is important but finds it hard to see how it can achieve its objectives in such a short period of time, especially in view of other pressures. “The current level of most Spanish teachers’ English is far below the level it would require to meet the Generalitat’s high objectives,” Cañadell was quoted as saying in Avui. “But there are many other problems that the public education system must deal with, such as declining grades, students leaving school at 16 and integration of new students, that are equally pressing. It’s difficult to see how all these challenges can be met at the same time.”
Meanwhile, some say the added pressures that teaching in ‘the third language’ will put on teachers and the teaching industry as a whole have not been fully considered. Steve Rumbol, a trade union representative for teachers, expressed concerns that teachers themselves have not been consulted enough over the plans.
“Since there has been no consultation with the unions about this plan, we fear that the resource implications haven’t been properly considered to ensure quality training and working conditions for the staff involved,” Rumbol was quoted as saying on the website www.vilaweb.cat. “Recruiting 500 native speaking ‘conversation assistants’ also raises the question of under what conditions, pay and contracts will these staff be employed? The same goes for the private sector—the Generalitat must ensure that minimum standards for teaching and working conditions are met to stop employers using fraudulent contracts and other abuses.”
If other smaller scale projects are a good barometer for the success of the Pla d’Anglès, however, the signs are encouraging. The British Council has been involved in promoting English learning in Spanish schools for more than a decade, and has already yielded some impressive results. “The Spanish Ministry of Education, in partnership with the British Council, have been teaching a bilingual schools project in 110 state schools in 11 regions in Spain since 1996,” Teresa Reilly, Bilingual Projects Manager at the British Council, told Metropolitan. “There are now 26,000 pupils in the project. The children start at the age of three and until they’re 16, literacy, language, science, geography and art are all taught in English by Spanish teachers. Approximately 40 percent of the curriculum is taught in English, and the first group of pupils piloted IGCSE exams in English last summer with a 90-percent pass rate.”
Reilly points out that this initiative by the British Council has been the inspiration not only for the Generalitat’s own plan, but those of other regional governments. “Since then, various autonomous authorities have become involved in developing their own bilingual programmes. The Community of Madrid has one which started in 2003 with six-year-old pupils in primary one. There are now 40,000 pupils in this project, which has reached primary five. Andalucia has a similar project as does Galicia, Castilla y León, Castilla La Mancha, etc. In Catalunya, there are already a number of state schools where the teaching of English through the curriculum is well-established and teachers have been regularly upskilling their language competence for several years, as well as learning more about teaching English.”
Many members of the teachers’ associations maintain that while the plan’s aims are noble, the targets will remain out of reach. John Mackay of the Associació de Mestres Rosa Sensat Association, told El Punt newspaper, “The level C of English that the Generalitat is hoping school leavers will achieve seems very ambitious for Spanish teachers to teach properly. In addition, the majority of new resources such as classroom aides will be assigned mainly to primary schools. To get 15,000 teachers that can teach English into the system in such a short time is also very difficult—it’s a nice idea but seems unrealistic.”
Meanwhile, the Federació d’Associaciones de Mares i Pares d’Alumnes de Catalunya (FAPAC), the Federation of Parents of Pupils in Catalunya, has welcomed the fact that children will now start learning English from level P3 at nine years old, acknowledging that the earlier children start learning a language the easier it is for them later. However, Walter García, president of the association, warned that the project must be implemented uniformly to prevent some schools receiving preferential treatment over others. “It must be ensured that all schools receive equal funding and support to guarantee equality of opportunity for all,” he was quoted on www.vilaweb.cat. “The English curriculum must also be implemented with full consideration for schools and not just imposed from above. A good level of English language skills can open doors in the job market, but parents aren’t looking for perfection, because it’s more important to have an excellent level of both Catalan and Spanish.”
It seems that the real success of the Pla d’Anglès will only be measurable at its 2014 completion date. Maybe then we’ll finally always be able to see The Simpsons on Spanish TV in English—now there’s an incentive for students everywhere.