Remembering Ian Boffey

Remembering Ian Boffey

A tribute to a true champion of modern language teaching

What you are doing owes far more to him and those he was able to inspire than you probably realise.

Ian Boffey was appointed adviser in modern languages in Renfrew division of Strathclyde region in 1975 and later also took responsibility for providing advisory services in Argyll & Bute division. Along with colleagues in the other divisions he was in the forefront of rethinking how best they might best react to the body blow dealt to modern language study by the Munn Report on the curriculum in Scottish schools which had recommended that study should be compulsory for all in S1 and S2 but optional thereafter.


Reverend Ian Boffey

Ian celebrating his retirement in August, 2005. Image ©The Scottish Episcopal Church.


Although the numbers studying a MFL had burgeoned in the 1950s and -60s, the syllabus, as exemplified by the course books commonly used and the Ordinary grade exam, was still firmly grammar-orientated, with reading and writing regarded as the most important skills. However, a revolution was imminent. Close to home, Professor Pit Corder at the University of Edinburgh was developing his theory of inter-language which did more to undermine the current teaching methodology than the work of better-known linguistics pioneers such as Chomsky. Whilst Strathclyde decided to concentrate on developing classroom materials that would be more relevant to the interests of the target audience, colleagues in Lothian were absorbing the implications of Pit Corder’s work and creating materials that set graded targets for pupils at all stages of study (ask older colleagues if they remember GLAFLL).

One cannot understand the importance of Ian Boffey’s contribution to what—and how—we now teach without appreciating this historical context.

It was Ian who persuaded his Strathclyde colleagues to enter the turbulent waters of applied languages research. It was he who offered the hallowed rooms of the Robertson Centre in Paisley to a group of outstanding teachers determined to write a course for demotivated S3 and S4 learners (anyone out there remember A L’Attaque?) which never quite saw the light of day because Strathclyde gradually began to set its face against inter-divisional meetings.

However, the national situation for languages was improving as growing pressure for reforms in assessment led to Standard grade. HM Inspectorate was gradually eased into supporting this more communicative approach to the syllabus, but there were still massive hurdles to overcome. Teachers may complain about the slowness with which support materials have been provided for implementation of CfE but it was nothing compared with the struggle to provide resources for Standard grade (anybody still got a box of CORM materials?). Try as one might, there were still many schools where the options columns made continued FL study for all quite impossible.

Miraculously, and in no small measure due to the UK’s joining the European Community, it was a Conservative Secretary of State who opened the door to “languages for all” with the issue of the notorious circular 1178. This stated that all pupils were entitled to a minimum of 500 hours exposure to at least one foreign language. Of course, we now know how significant that word “entitled” has become, because the circular opened the door to teaching a foreign language in primary schools. Naturally, that counts towards the magical 500, thus relieving unsympathetic secondary school managers of the obligation to continue foreign language study for all into S3 and S4. However, it did allow regional authorities initially to implement primary language study in whatever manner it thought appropriate to their circumstances, and in this Renfrew was no less creative than it had been with other initiatives. And as the groundwork for the Higher Still exam that inevitably followed on from the Standard grade revolution was being laid, Ian was involved in that too, his aim being to make learning a language to Higher not just possible but purposeful.

Ian was very influential in encouraging teachers and examiners to make speaking and listening the key elements of Higher Still.

As full-time advisers disappeared from the scene with the unitary authorities supplanting regions, Ian remained at the heart of change. As ever, he left the conference floor and in-service stages to teachers as the expert practitioners but behind the scenes he was masterly. He was a true intellectual, recognised by his peers and by teachers as a deep thinker on all matters to do with language teaching. He identified teachers and departments who were in the forefront of implementing change and supported them in all kinds of ways. His commitment was to his subject, not his personal reputation.

Typically, Ian did not take early retirement as did some adviser colleagues as the new authorities continued to downsize their central support teams or evolved them into a quality improvement role, for he reckoned there was still work to do and his appetite for it was undiminished. He moved to Glasgow City Council where his many initiatives included:

  • The extensive development of materials for every stage and language of Higher Still so that departments could launch into all levels and all languages at the same time.
  • 5-14 support materials including staff development.
  • Ongoing MLPS training and development of support materials, including a programme along with Glasgow University to have units from the MLPS 20-week training programme accredited via a diploma from the university.
  • Encouraging European exchanges with visits to Germany, France, Italy and Spain with PTs to this end. He made many excellent links such as Nuremberg, Marseille and Turin via the twin cities programmes and began the Catalan exchange programme in conjunction with Glasgow’s International Office.
  • Embracing the use of technology in language teaching. Many judged Ian to be thoroughly traditional because he had been around for so long but he appreciated the value of using modern methods to enhance language teaching and learning. This included visiting a school outside London where there were very innovative technological methods in use and subsequently inviting the principal teacher to speak to Glasgow staff on more than one occasion.

Ian took the traditional elements of the job seriously. He fought to ensure a continuing supply of foreign assistants. Much of his time was taken up with trying to ensure languages remained in the core and that primaries delivered to p6/7. He was constantly visiting and indeed battling head teachers on this matter. He prioritised ongoing staff professional development, including ensuring adequate continuity and progression in language teaching as well as the development of management skills both for existing PTs and those aspiring to promotion.

Glasgow was carrying out a widespread programme of school and department reviews throughout the 2000s and Ian seemed to really enjoy this part of his remit. He wrote many reports on departments and the schools under his jurisdiction plus the necessary pre-inspection reports for HMIe. He also met and updated councillors frequently and was well respected for his erudite views. Like colleagues in a similar situation he lamented that his role in languages was necessarily diminishing as his quality improvement role increased. Nonetheless he embraced the self-financing aspects of the job. Along with his successor Maureen Gilchrist he continued his initial work on MLPS teaching materials. They developed an interactive version of the French, which went on to sell throughout the UK and Australia. This brought in six-figure sums and financed secondees who took on a variety of roles in training staff for MLPS, including for other authorities. Although not as extensive as the French model, materials and training were put in place for Spanish and Italian. To this day the languages ‘team’ still deliver training in other authorities with an eye to 1+2.

Ian retired just before Christmas 2005. Typically, as a confirmed minister of the Episcopalian church he now threw himself into supporting his religion as part of a team working mainly in Ayrshire. He retired from this work in 2013, mainly on health grounds.

Modern language teaching in Scotland owes an enormous debt to Ian Boffey. He was not in it for the glory. The only honour he received was, in the early part of his career, from the French Government for his work in introducing the new ideas on language teaching which they were in the forefront of spreading through the French Institutes. So far as he was concerned there was work to do in making life more rewarding and interesting and purposeful for pupils and their teachers. Nothing deterred him. What you are doing owes far more to him and those he was able to inspire than you probably realise.

This appreciation was compiled with assistance from John Fergusson (languages adviser, Glasgow, 1975-1990) and Maureen Gilchrist (adviser/quality inspector, Glasgow City Council, 2005-2012)
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