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Build on basics, free the tongue

Scottish education is falling behind because of financial and intellectual underinvestment, says Joseph Farrell.

Any attempt to debate education in Scotland is fraught with risks. The language itself is loaded. Talk about basics and you are linked with former Prime Minister John Major, mention grammar and you are branded a reactionary, voice concern about standards and you are dismissed as elitist, suggest that things were once better and could be so again and you are consigned to the circle of romantic yearners after an age that never existed.

Pat Sweeney, in his TES Scotland Plus column two weeks ago dismissing my concerns on the current thrust of education policy, carried out the latter operation with grace and erudition, even using classical tags.

Since my views were first aired in The Herald, I have been bombarded with letters and e-mail messages from teachers, both those within the "groves of academe" in which Mr Sweeney encloses me, and those who toil well away from them. They were all in agreement that we in Scotland are falling behind in the educational stakes and that the process of decline has been accelerated by the demands of the Higher Still system of examinations. When recruitment officers from the computer industry join in the debate saying that deficiencies in engineering and mathematical skills shown by candidates for employment threaten Scotland's fragile technological future, perhaps even policy makers should listen.

The only disagreement came from those who do not teach. The real education nabobs in Whitehall, or now on the Mound, feel no need to debate at all. An unsigned, unattributed statement was issued in the name of the Scottish Executive which spoke of "a positive overall picture of standards and rising quality of performance in many areas in Scotland's schools", while Ronnie Smith of the Educational Institute of Scotland grumbled that I was attacking teachers, which I was not.

Teachers know that there is a problem. There has been underinvestment - intellectual as much as financial - in education to match that in transport or health. While underinvestment in the railways leads to crowds on station platforms, packed trains and fury in the press, and in health leads to lengthy waiting lists and rage in MPs' surgeries, there is no similarly visible outcome to the failure to devote time and thought to the education process. The consequences could be even more catastrophic in a new information economy, but meantime they are invisible outside classrooms. Our Scottish Qualifications Authority provides reassurance.

I have every intention of accepting Mr Sweeney's invitation to visit his school and will need no convincing about the industry of the staff. I will be curious to hear their views. I will also ask Mr Sweeney to read a letter I received from a pupil who is as articulate as the Katie Robb of Holy Rood whom he mentioned in his article and whose linguistic prowess has so impressed him. The other young woman was equally careful to avoid any slight on teachers, but expressed concern over a "system which starves pupils of the basic understanding and knowledge of the English language and therefore of modern languages".

The curriculum is, or ought to be, the core of the debate. In my own field, foreign languages, current practice downgrades the teaching of grammar in English and ipso facto undermines the learning of other languages. Would someone like to explain the point of the spoken element in languages when it can be prepared beforehand, or state what skills are being tested by the "directed writing" section which can be seen and corrected by a teacher before the examination?

Since Mr Sweeney refers to young Miss Robb to clinch his case, I presume he will agree with me that any assessment of the current situation can only be carried on by reference to the pupils in the classroom, and perhaps even by listening to the views of teachers, even ones in the "groves". My classroom experience tells me that the much-vaunted rise in communication skills is not occurring, that the tongue-tied Scot is still with us, the emphasis on free expression has masked a rise in ignorance of structures needed for knowledge and that our grasp of languages is poorer than ever.

When universities have to run remedial courses, something is wrong that affects the whole system. It is reverse snobbery to suggest otherwise.

I have been struck by the number of my correspondents who drew on experience abroad to make unfavourable comparisons with our situation. Our European neighbours are engaged on debates on education but these debates are led by the ministers. Why cannot our new parliament, or the teaching profession itself, conduct a comparable debate?

Joseph Farrell is professor of Italian at the University of Strathclyde

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