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Gloom lifts on languages

The first survey of attainment in modern languages has painted a rare, positive picture of progress at the P7-S2 stages, an area of the curriculum that received one of the most pessimistic inspectorate reports ever in 1998.

HMI's verdict forced the then Scottish Office to set up an inquiry by a high-powered committee chaired by John Mulgrew, director of education in East Ayrshire. Ministers have already committed pound;10.5 million to shore up the position of languages in schools since 2001.

The Assessment of Achievement Programme, which has so far only covered performance in English, maths, science and social subjects, has now found that there was good progress in French and German between P7 and S2, the transition period found wanting in virtually all HMI reports.

While the survey may already be out of date - it was conducted in 2001 among 2,000 pupils - it was seized on by the Scottish Executive which claimed that it "provides the first clear evidence that teaching modern languages in primary school is effective".

The AAP report itself states: "This survey provides evidence that provision for language is enabling over four-fifths of students to achieve the most basic level of competence, level C, and around a third to achieve more than this.

"Secondary students have consolidated the basics of the language they are studying and, in many cases, are widening their linguistic repertoire, with more extensive vocabulary, phrases and structures than at primary level.

Some secondary students are beginning to become more creative in their use of the language they are studying."

Among the findings are:

* Four fifths of P7 students achieve level C in listening and speaking and about a third achieve level D.

* More than two-thirds of S2 pupils achieved level D in speaking but fewer than half were at that level in writing.

* S2 students are more advanced than P7 students in listening and speaking.

* Attainment in German is higher than in French, significantly so in respect of listening and reading.

* Girls performed better than boys in almost every task, the biggest difference being in reading at S2 in both French and German.

Peter Peacock, Education Minister, underlined the importance of the fact that communication skills appear to come out on top, saying he was "encouraged that this report confirms that primary pupils are now developing these essential skills".

The survey confirms there is progress in listening and speaking between P7 and S2 - but there are qualifications. On listening, the report notes:

"There appears to be little difference between P7 and S2 in terms of their ability to deal with the unexpected.

"These findings raise the question of whether there is a need to focus more on decoding strategies, the ability to hypothesise from the known to the unknown and on what might be termed 'educated guesswork' - all essential strategies for good linguists."

On speaking, the report draws attention to weaknesses such as heavy reliance by P7 and S2 pupils on known chunks of material.

The AAP was not able to deliver a rounded verdict on progress in writing and reading between primary and secondary because assessment was restricted to S2. But it found cheering news that a substantial proportion of pupils, 40 per cent, can cope with demanding texts.

Writing continues to be the weakest skill for S2 pupils but, again, 42 per cent were able to go beyond the use of simple and familiar words and phrases.

Leader 26

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