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Jury still out on languages

he modern language results from the Assessment of Achievement Programme survey (page five) make encouraging reading at first sight. This is particularly so in the evidence of progression from P7 to S2, the weakest link. But, as with all 5-14 evidence, there are health warnings not just about the reliability of assessments but also the fact that the six levels of the programme are the minimum performance standards required at each of the stages.

So, while it is encouraging that 70 per cent of S2 pupils are at level D in listening in French and German and 80 per cent in reading, only 56 per cent have attained level D in speaking and just 42 per cent in writing - when pupils at that stage should be aspiring to level E. Figures at this standard do not make such comfortable reading - only 11 per cent achieve level E in writing, for example, which drops to just 9 per cent for French.

The concentration of the survey on levels C and D possibly paints a rosier picture than is warranted. But it is difficult to know. The survey is so hedged around with warnings about interpreting the results with caution that these initial figures from the first ever modern languages AAP report can only be treated as a benchmark for following years. Performance in writing is a case in point because, as teachers will be only too wearily aware, the authorities changed the rules in mid-stream and told schools to put more emphasis on writing than the original guidelines required. The description of the guidelines as no more than "generally adequate" is scarcely a ringing endorsement.

The fact that the survey was conducted in 2001 also makes it impossible to assess the impact of the Executive's extra funding for modern languages which did not begin until that year. And, of course, it is not clear what impact there has been in primary schools from the change of policy which replaced compulsory modern languages in S1-S4 with an "entitlement". So the jury must still be out.

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