Language assistant numbers plummet

Loss of ringfenced funding is behind decline, claims British Council

The number of foreign language assistants has fallen dramatically in Scotland.

The decline has been so precipitous - from 284 in 2005-06 to 59 this year - that there are fewer language assistants here than in Wales or Northern Ireland, despite Scotland's far greater population.

The British Council Scotland is clear about the reason for the fall in numbers, highlighted in a TESS survey in March: the removal of ring-fenced funding as a result of the Scottish Government's concordat with local authorities.

That has left councils free to ditch language assistants, despite ministers' frequent statements in support of language teaching.

Each assistant - who can work in three schools - costs just under pound;8,000 annually, but this year only seven local authorities employed any: Angus, Edinburgh, East Renfrewshire, Inverclyde, North Ayrshire, North Lanarkshire and Orkney.

British Council Scotland director Lloyd Anderson is concerned about the loss of language assistants' "vital role" in opening up a "cultural dimension to language-learning that enthuses and inspires young people".

Teachers, he said, were "in no doubt that this helps increase linguistic fluency and makes it more likely a young person will continue studying languages to a high level".

School Leaders Scotland general secretary Ken Cunningham said that, at a time of "significant government support" for languages in schools, it seemed "terribly short-sighted to be removing one of the key elements of language study".

Marie Murigneux, 21, a French assistant from St Etienne, is working in East Renfrewshire with children as young as P3. In her experience, some younger primary pupils find it difficult to accept that other countries and other languages exist, until they meet her.

The presence of language assistants in classrooms was, for her, "a way of travelling without travelling".

Nuria Frias, 24, a Spanish assistant in Inverclyde who comes from near Barcelona, feels she can offer a social and cultural experience of Spanish - not to mention a little Catalan - that is different and less intense than other lessons.

She has found that, whereas in Spain pupils' attention on exams starts quite late, in Scotland the focus in upper secondary is largely on exams from the start of the year, and pupils can become "uptight".

Minister for Learning Alasdair Allan said that language assistants were "cost-effective", made a "valuable contribution" to Scottish schools, and that a languages working group - which is due to report back next year - would look at the assistants' role in boosting language learning.

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