With an ongoing drop in the numbers of students studying a language (as discussed in for example the Language Trends England 23 report), schools need to ensure studying a language is an attractive prospect to students. Here, one school explains how the recruitment of language assistants does just that.

At Park View School in Durham, attracting students to study a foreign language is not a problem; at both GCSE and A level, there are full classes learning Spanish, French and German. 

There are a couple of factors that have played a key role in this success, says Judith Goad, the school’s head of German: historically the school was a language college (secondaries were encouraged to take on a speciality by the government in 1993) and, each year, a number of language assistants join the school. 

So, what are language assistants and how can they boost a school’s offer?

The language assistant programme is run by the British Council, and it sees foreign nationals from 15 countries all over the world undertake placements in schools to assist with MFL teaching. This year, there are three language assistants at Park View; in previous years there have been two, or just one. 

But no matter how many there are, they always make a huge impact on teaching and learning, and help to raise the profile, and pull, of MFL across the school, says Goad. 

How a language assistant supports the classroom teacher

There are a number of ways the language assistants are used: these include running stretch and challenge sessions for older students, and leading interventions or one-on-one support, explains Peter Davison, the head of French at Park View School. 

“Our sixth-form students get bespoke sessions of half an hour every week to build up their fluency and cultural capital, and that is definitely one of the highlights of the A-level course for the students,” he says.

“The school gets each language assistant for 12 hours a week, and the other hours may be spent delivering one-on-one interventions with Year 11 exam students or with the younger learners in the classroom, getting them engaged and enthusiastic about the subject.”

The assistants do wonders for cultural capital, says Goad. They often lead lessons on certain traditions in their country, or on art forms that are particularly popular. 

“We are always so pleased to let them run with that sort of work, because not only do the students learn so much from it, as staff we learn so much too, and we can use those examples again and again,” she says. 

Keeping up-to-date with culture in a different country

At A level, the students have a cultural knowledge booklet as a key resource and, each year, the language assistants will review it and update it if necessary. 

“The booklets are almost like a live history of what has changed in those countries over the past decade. The language assistants have access to the kind of knowledge that for us as teachers, it can be hard to keep track of,” says Davison.  

Goad says that the language assistants have also been a useful resource to keep her own knowledge up to date.

“In German, there’s been so much change in politics, and our current assistant is brilliant at talking me through it and making sure I have got the politicians’ names right and so on. I do not always have time to keep track of things like who the ministers are because it is always changing,” she says.

“They are also great around new technology developments and teaching us the vocabulary for those: language is always changing, and they help us to keep really up to date.”

Boosting the confidence of students to speak

For the students, it is a massive confidence boost to be able to have a conversation with a fluent speaker, Davison adds. 

“It is amazing for them to have these conversations about a place they may have never been to; it is really exciting for them, and they love going out and doing small group sessions and one-to-ones with the language assistants,” he explains. 

Goad says the assistants are always really popular members of staff, and you can clearly see how much the interactions they have with pupils raise aspirations.

“As a teaching staff, we only have one native speaker who is a full-time teacher, and I do not think that is uncommon. Sometimes, because we are teachers who live in the local area, the students are not that convinced when we tell them where they can travel to and what they could achieve,” she says. 

“But when it is someone from that country, those conversations are so much more purposeful, the students get so much from it, and it will build their aspirations. Many of them have left school after sixth form and chosen to pursue languages at university or go travelling, after encouragement from the language assistants.”

Both Goad and Davison appreciate the funding the school sets aside for this resource, and firmly believe that the assistants are a key contributor to the success they enjoy in MFL engagement from Year 7 to Year 13.

“Our language assistants are an invaluable part of our departments and teams; they are a real novelty, and they really help to make language learning attractive across all year groups. They are also a brilliant teaching tool,” says Davison. “They support both staff and the students in more ways than we could say.”


Adapted from a sponsored article in the Times Education Supplement

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