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Languages escape the strait-jacket

David Henderson reports on the recommendations of the ministerial action group

COMPULSORY French, German or Spanish up to the age of 16 has been dropped by the ministerial action group on languages, which this week launched its long-awaited report in the capital.

Ministers will shortly reveal their response to the two-year inquiry but are expected to back a new entitlement to foreign language learning, packaged as six years of study or a minimum of 500 hours of learning between the primary years and S4.

Schools and authorities will be free to experiment with alternative approaches to win the hearts and minds of students who, to date, have shown a marked reluctance to pick up languages.

But only a national strategy that tackles attitudes and motivation in the wider community will help overcome Scots' traditional opposition, the action group says.

John Mulgrew, director of education in East Ayrshire, who led the inquiry, admits "there are no quick fixes", a view shared by Jack McConnell, the Education Minister, who said that strategies should be implemented over five to six years. "It's a long-term project," Mr McConnell said.

Both argue that students deserve better in a multilingual world where working abroad or contact with other Europeans will increasingly be part of normal employment patterns.

The report limits itself to 14 recommendations for transforming the disappointing languages picture. A separate rationale for language learning accompanies the main report and aims to challenge negative views of young people, parents, guidance staff and senior management in schools.

Top of the wish list is an entitlement to a minimum of 500 hours of language learning from primary through to secondary and the option of immersion learning at some stage, the most effective means for learning another language, according to researchers.

Man teachers and local authorities will be relieved that the group recommends the removal of compulsory languages up to S4 or the age of 16, first introduced by Malcolm Rifkind, former Conservative Scottish Secretary, in 1989 during a pro-European phase.

A significant minority of principal teachers have opposed the languages for all policy which many contend has turned off the vast majority of children. In a related comment, the action group notes: "We accept that a major challenge lies ahead in ensuring that all students and not simply an elite minority perceive their six years or 500 hours as being interesting, relevant and useful."

Mr Mulgrew, launching his report at Drummond High, said that motivation was central to the proposals. "We considered the present languages for all approach and its link with compulsion. I have never been convinced compulsion results in achievement and excellence in education."

The report admits that pupils are unlikely to be fluent linguists at the end of their study but instead should have reached "a good initial base".

In a departure from the norm, the group makes no firm suggestions about how language learning should be delivered locally, allowing schools and councils the freedom to devise their own strategies within broad objectives.

A special innovation fund of up to pound;10 million should be set up, it suggests. The policy would, for example, permit authorities to test early immersion strategies along the lines of Aberdeen's pilot at Walker Road primary in the Torry area, launched this session.

The inquiry's only stipulation is that "experience" of learning a modern language should begin no later than P6. In the long term, this could signal a switch to earlier language learning if primary teachers are required to learn a language during their training, another key recommendation.

Leader, page 14

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