Monday, September 09, 2013

A Balearic Lesson In Making Education Worse

I spoke the other day with a British woman whose children are at school locally. I asked her about the introduction of teaching in English. Her reaction did not surprise me. How can it work when neither teachers nor pupils can speak English well enough?

There will be exceptions. There will be teachers whose English is excellent. There will be pupils whose English is excellent, but don't be fooled into believing that children with English-speaking parents (or one parent) will necessarily be excellent. If these children have grown up in Mallorca, their English, especially their written English, may well be poor. Multilingualism, genuine multilingualism, requires immersion and constant reinforcement. If even English-speaking children aren't brilliant, then what possible hope is there for Mallorcan children?

There are of course educational regimes which operate multilingualism well, but they tend to be those which have promoted English (or other languages) for very many years and which have cultures highly geared to acceptance and use of other languages. In the Netherlands, as an example, watching the BBC has long been a common practice in Dutch homes. The Dutch, though, are a pragmatic people. As the person at the Amsterdam Stock Exchange with whom I collaborated some years ago once remarked: "we speak English because no one else speaks Dutch".

Mallorca and the Balearics are not known for their high levels of pragmatism, other than the pragmatism that is demanded to not rock the boat, and the boat that should not be rocked is one commanded by ideology, self-interest and power. Introducing trilingualism may sound as though it is a pragmatic response to tackling what has for too long been an underperforming state education system, but it is not pragmatic. Not when the right skills do not exist. Not when a culture of language acquisition does not exist. And not when the introduction is undertaken in an incoherent and hasty fashion with too little attention paid to practicalities but with a great deal of attention paid to ideology. For trilingualism to work, a considerable amount of ground work has to be done. For it to work, it needs to be introduced incrementally. Bit by bit. Evolution rather than revolution.

It is easy to be persuaded that there is a culture of language acquisition when one encounters the many Mallorcans who can speak English. Yes, there is a good deal of English ability knocking around but too little which is of a standard required to teach in English. There is much English spoken but as a survey of students at the University of the Balearic Islands revealed in 2010, two-thirds of these students admitted to not understanding English.

This failure is not unique to the Balearics. A professor from the University of Navarre pointed out not so long ago that great numbers of Spanish pupils, despite being taught English (as opposed to being taught in English), were leaving school still not able to speak English to any decent level.

The Balearic Government is right to try and confront the issue but it has gone about it in a wholly unsatisfactory manner. It wants trilingual revolution but will end up with a different type of revolution. It is already facing one. The revolt of teachers against the TIL scheme. The government has used the introduction of trilingualism to shield its antipathy towards Catalan and has so insisted on revolution as a fast-track device to bring Catalan to heel. This is the ideology. One that is wrapped up as securing the future of the children of the Balearics, or so the president would have everyone believe.

The teachers are using the same ideology but in reverse. They are aghast at the potential for Catalan to be undermined, but in their defence they do also appreciate, far better than the government, the pedagogical problems raised by trilingualism. But because the teachers (their unions at any rate) are a bunch of lefty, Catalanist agitators, the government has ignored them. And it was this disregard which led the Balearics High Court to tell the government that its procedure for scheduling the implementation of TIL was wrong. The government had not consulted properly, just as, only hours after the court's decision, it revealed it had not consulted at all in magicking up some decree to permit TIL to go ahead as of this Friday.

The principle of TIL is not wrong but the implementation is totally wrong. Blind dogma has led the government down a path towards chaos in the classrooms, chaos that will be even greater if PSOE were to return to power in 2015 and scrap TIL (they have said they will). The government, far from taking measures to improve educational performance, has adopted one that will worsen it.

Any comments to please.

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