Reflecting on NCELP and what comes next.

If you follow language education news, you will likely have seen the Department for Education’s announcement that the latest tender for the Centre of Excellence to support MFL teaching has not been awarded to NCELP, the National Centre for Excellence for Language Pedagogy, but to a competitor, meaning NCELP, who were awarded the 2018 tender, now closes. As one of the last members of staff to join the team and one of the first to leave, I want to reflect on all that NCELP has achieved in the past five years and think about what comes next.

Back in 2018 Emma and Rachel built NCELP from scratch, developing and delivering research on multiple aspects of MFL pedagogy, creating a Languages Hub School Network, building teams to create teaching and learning resources, creating teacher CPD, training staff at awarding organizations, supervised and guided post-doctoral projects, collaborated with external partners including the awarding organization, Eduqas (part of WJEC), and language software specialists Sanako UK. In that time more than 50 people have worked for them in one capacity or another, meaning that they have generated employment in a sector that is generally under threat. Let us take a moment to consider all that they, and the teams they created, have achieved.

Now let us consider that the purposes of NCELP has always been, as the website says, about ‘understanding, improving and promoting language learning’. It is based on rigorous and meticulous research and responds to the MFL pedagogy review. The cause of improving language learning is a pedagogical one but it is also about more than pedagogy and goes beyond the classroom. The negative impact of the UK’s languages’ gap is well documented, as these reports alone show. By working to improve language curriculum design and pedagogy, NCELP was contributing towards making the much needed changes to enable that languages’ gap to close. With all of this in mind you can perhaps begin to get a sense of the impact of the latest decision on the NCELP team, on our collaborators and on the language learners who have been thriving under NCELP schemes of work. You may of course be thinking, if NCELP is so good, why did it not get the latest tender? The answer is quite simple. The tender process only takes into consideration the bid itself, anything that came before, everything NCELP has achieved in the last 5 years, is not considered relevant.

I came to NCELP relatively late. I joined the team in August 2022, knowing that my contract may only last until March, hoping however that it would continue. My association with NCELP goes further back that last summer though. In fact I originally applied to work for them back in 2020, only to be offered and accept a different job the day before NCELP invited me to interview. I felt a twinge of regret turning the interview down. After that job finished, I moved onto a temporary cover role at WJEC/Eduqas, which then led to my crossing NCELP’s path once again, first in being a recipient of their training on the new MFL GCSE and the research underpinning it, and then in working collaboratively on the new GCSE wordlists. Our collaborative working became of my favourite aspects of my then role. So when that finished, I jumped at the chance to working for NCELP and would have happily continued.

I’ve worked in all kinds of environments – nice ones and toxic ones – so I know the value of working in a really, genuinely good team, and I’ll miss that now my time at NCELP has come to an end. My role as a resource developer may have, on paper, been academic related rather than directly academic, as is my usual preference, but Emma and Rachel ensured I was given ample opportunity to share my expertise and continue in my professional development, including delving into a new research area for me, being supported and encouraged in doing so, as I recently posted about on Twitter & LinkedIn.

Working for NCELP felt as if I was doing a job with real-world value, work that felt worthwhile, and as feedback from schools indicated, was making a difference in improving language learning.

This, of course, is part of what makes the current situation so difficult. Yes, individually, there is the impact of losing your job and gearing yourself up for an unknown period of unemployment and cycle of application and interview, but beyond the impact on the self, the far heavier burden for me at least, is knowing that we’re leaving teachers and learners without a full suite of resources for the new GCSE, that is first taught from 2024. We have resources for Years 7, 8, 9 and Term 1 of Year 10 but the remainder of the resources have yet to be developed. That they may not now be, weighs heavy indeed. I fervently hope that funding can be found elsewhere – if not to do all of the things NCELP planned to do – then to finish the resources as a bare minimum. Perhaps investors from business and industry could step in? We know there is a business need for good linguists and we know there aren’t enough of them. My cousin, who works in recruitment, has been known to talk about the difficulty of filling vacancies where another language in addition to English is required. Whether new investors can be found, and found quickly, remains to be seen.

Of course, what happens at GCSE level also impacts beyond it educationally to A’ level and degree. The GCSE-A’ level stream isn’t the only route to languages at university. Beginners courses have become widespread in most universities that still have a languages’ department. Many also offer ‘languages for all’ opportunities for students to learn alongside out degree, and as Becky Muradás-Taylor’s recent article shows, attempts are being made to support widening participation in language learning. Yet, being part of NCELP felt as if we were making a contribution in fighting for languages – at the school level but with an eye on the university level as well. The more students could be inspired early, the greater the chance they would be inspired to study more than one language at university. Over the course of my time as a Lecturer in German at various UK universities the low uptake of German at school has impacted my career – both in the uptake of beginners’ German at university, which once meant that within a space of a week my 0.5fte contract was extended to a 0.8fte, but more often meant too few students, too few jobs and contractual instability. So the work that I did at NCELP, contributing to language learning in such a valuable way felt so worthwhile. I had one eye on making language learning accessible for all and another on positively helping student numbers further up the educational ladder, for colleagues and friends still with an academic post. I may not have another academic role but the thought the work we were doing could help language learning uptake, was comforting nevertheless. That that work has now stopped, and the resources are incomplete, is frustrating to say the very least. I only hope that investors can be found and found quickly so that teachers and learners can have the suite of resources we had planned.

We simply do not know what the future now holds. I am not sure where I go from here. An academic post? Perhaps. But then again, perhaps not. I do know that whatever my next job turns out to be, language, research with real-world value, writing, working in a kind environment and with people with integrity – all of which I have had at NCELP – need to be central to it. I also know that working for NCELP, for Emma and Rachel, and with the whole team, has been a privilege and a pleasure.

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