Liliana Burga reports that plans for a bilingual society are on course and heading for success
When decision-makers in Peru started talking about their plans to build a bilingual society – in which all children can manage a foreign language, English being the priority – many of us thought it was just another promise. But we were wrong. The idea that any nation could become bilingual by 2021 sounded too ambitious and challenging to be true. Can this really be achieved in just a few years? The benchmark looked too high compared to the reality of our schools and the reality of schools in neighbouring countries.
Why were specialists and teachers so pessimistic? The 2012 English Proficiency Index, an analysis of non-English-speaking countries around the world, showed that Peru was at a low proficiency level, near that of Vietnam or Turkey. And the Educational Testing Service reported in 2013 that most Peruvian students who sat the Toefl exam scored 86 marks or less, while the minimum required by international universities to accept applicants is generally 100.
For children at public schools it gets worse. English is not considered a subject to be taught from primary level (first to sixth grade) so students start secondary school without any knowledge of English. Things don’t get better at secondary level because students only study two or three hours of English per week. There is a huge difference with students from private schools, who usually study more than six hours of English per week from kindergarten.
Something had to be done. When the ministry of education partnered with the Peruvian National Scholarship Programme to take up the challenge, changes and improvements started to happen. The National English Language Teaching and Learning Policy – also known as English, Doors to the World – launched in 2015 and since then students from over 1,600 schools in capital Lima and some provinces have started a 45-hour school week, up from 35 hours, with two more hours a week devoted to studying English. Roughly half a million students have benefited, representing 28 per cent of the student body at secondary level in Peru.
A massive programme of scholarships was designed, and 1,000 students who have completed studies at public-sector universities are now studying English in intensive courses. The initiative is focused on boosting students’ communication-skill development in the English language with the intention of broadening educational opportunities and accessing the many scholarships that have not been taken up because applicants lack the minimum level of English – usually B2 or upper-intermediate level.
In May a scholarship for students in the third and fourth grade of secondary school was introduced, which is set to benefit 6,500 students across Peru by giving them the opportunity to study English for two years at one of the most prestigious language schools in our country.
Teachers were also considered in this ambitious vision, and 800 of them studied in summer and winter schools specifically designed for them, with tutoring by instructors from English-speaking countries – mostly the UK – who came to Peru exclusively for this purpose. Over 230 teachers were also sent to Arizona State University for a month, where they attended a professional development course.
With the support of the British embassy in Peru, 150 Peruvian teachers studied on a seven-week training course at King’s College London in partnership with International House London and at the University of East Anglia in partnership with Nile, where they became familiar with the latest techniques and resources in ELT.
Additionally, 3,200 teachers received online training thanks to Unesco, and now students have the opportunity to study using technology in the classroom through dedicated software installed in computers in 5,720 schools. The English, Doors to the World plan also includes extending broadband to cover all schools in Peru.
The final goal is to train 280,000 teachers by 2021, and Peru is on course to meet this target. There was scepticism when it was announced because something similar has been tried before. Some years ago, the government launched a plan to train English teachers across Peru, but the private institution that won the contract couldn’t produce the number of teacher trainers necessary to travel across the country to train, evaluate and monitor teachers. In the end the project failed.
Things are completely different now. The game-changer is that teachers are coming to Lima. The government funds everything – tickets for travel, food and accommodation – and a large number of tutors from the UK and other English-speaking countries work with them, with the government closely supervising all aspects of their training.
The dream of studying in English-speaking countries – especially the UK – is becoming a reality for more young Peruvians. With all the resources and effort mobilised for both students and teachers training across the country, it is fair to say that English has become the flagship subject in our schools. With English teachers sent to both the US and the UK, and with students from the provinces trained in Lima by mostly British tutors, the chances that bilingualism will be achieved in a few years are increasing.
Liliana Burga is a freelance writer of articles and a teacher trainer in Peru