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Break language silence

ONCE AGAIN we have education by numbers. You report (TESS, December 4) that there has been a decline in the number of fifth-year pupils taking a modern language Higher from 11,313 in 1976 to 5,966 in 1996 - a drop of 5,347. You suggest that this figure makes allowance for the changing nature of the age-group and the curriculum.

Well, on the exact same basis there has been an even more dramatic decline in the number of fifth-year pupils who fail to take a modern language Higher. This has fallen by a massive 19,331 from an appalling 79,191 in 1976 to a somewhat better 59,860 in 1998. These figures might suggest that, in contrast to the current orthodoxy, modern languages have been doing rather well over the last 22 years!

Of course, what these figures show is the need to ca' canny in the use of statistics. The truth of the matter is that there has been a 28 per cent decline in the year group population which is why the only way you can sensibly make comparisons between the two dates is by using the percentage of the year cohort.

In the case of the fifth-year uptake of modern language Highers this shows a drop from 12.5 per cent in 1976 to 8.1 per cent in 1998, with most of the reduction happening in the early years of this period. It is reasonable to ask why it has taken HMI so long to get worried.

Judith Gillespie, Development manager, Scottish Parent Teacher Council, Edinburgh.

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