The British Department for Education (DfE) today announced a U-turn on its previously-proposed policy that would have limited the scope of Jewish elementary schools in the United Kingdom to teach Hebrew as a modern foreign language.
As The Forward previously reported, under controversial plans released last December as part of an overall reform of the national curriculum, the DfE mandated that beginning in September 2014, pupils aged 7 to 11 would only be allowed to learn one of either French, German, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Latin, or ancient Greek as their second language in state-run schools.
The DfE stated that the aim of this policy was to prevent “any potential proliferation of very low take-up languages, and would focus schools’ attention on a sample of important languages.” A spokesperson for the Department told the Forward at the time that, “We want to give young people the skills they need to compete in a global jobs market.”
Such a policy, however, would have been destructive for the proliferation of Hebrew in government-aided Jewish day schools. The teaching of either classical or modern Hebrew would have been pushed to the margins in order to allow for the obligatory teaching of one of the seven permitted languages. The teaching of foreign languages in British schools is already compromised by the amount of time allocated to other subjects, including literary, numeracy, science, and the humanities.
Under the altered proposals which follow a public consultation, the DfE now states that in primary education, “teaching may be of any modern or ancient foreign language and should focus on enabling pupils to make substantial progress in one language.” This same policy also applies to the teaching of modern foreign languages up until the age of 14.
The DfE adds that, “If an ancient language is chosen the focus will be to provide a linguistic foundation for reading comprehension and an appreciation of classical civilisation.”
Following the publication of the initial policy in December, organisations including the Board of Deputies of British Jews protested and expressed concern about what would happen to Hebrew instruction. At the time, the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove told Jonathan Rabson, executive director of the National Association for Jewish Orthodox Schools, that, “We believe that by prescribing a list of core languages, we will preserve a balance between giving schools a variety of teaching options on the one hand, and maintaining continuity between primary and secondary language teaching on the other.
“Whilst I recognise that teaching another language in addition will present some challenges for your schools, this will also be the case for other schools which currently teach languages not on the prescribed list and wish to continue to do so, or which do not currently teach foreign languages at all.”
Yet in a letter released today, Gove stated, “We have noted the concerns expressed by organisations such as the Board of Deputies that it could narrow the scope of language teaching in primary schools. I have decided, therefore, not to proceed with making the proposed list a statutory requirement.”
A senior figure from the DfE added, “We think this decision will be greeted with approval by the sector in general and by the Board of Deputies in particular. Your campaigning work definitely helped influence this decision.”
Gove’s flip-flop, therefore, represents a victory for Jewish schools as they seek to balance the desire to give a Jewish education against the absolute need to continue comprehensive instruction in all subjects. Vivian Wineman, President of the Board of Deputies, said in a statement, “The Board of Deputies is delighted that Michael Gove has taken note of the representations we have made on behalf of the Jewish community – that the proposal of a narrow stipulation of compulsory languages would unduly damage our schools’ ability to teach Hebrew.
“The consequence of his decision is that it will be much easier to teach Hebrew within our schools.”