In the late 1980s as vice-chair of the Scottish Association for Language Teaching, I was involved in the campaign to include a modern language in the core curriculum. At that time we were witnessing a situation where a large percentage of pupils were dropping their modern language and would study English, maths, three sciences and a social subject. In this respect we were out of step with almost all of Europe. This hardly seemed a good preparation for the future of so many of our young people.
At the same time we were rightly concerned not to be seen as an elitist subject, only arguing for the brightest pupils. We also knew that modern languages had a contribution to make to the development of skills and to the cultural and European awareness of all our students.
Maybe we were too sensitive about the elitist label and maybe there is a need for some loosening of the curriculum for a small percentage of our pupils, which is what I believe the First Minister to be arguing.
However that debate goes far beyond modern manguages to ask whether history, maths, physics and other subjects are essential to all our young people and what indeed is the appropriately balanced curriculum for each of them. In my view, a situation as in Our Lady's High, Cumbernauld where 55 per cent of pupils have no experience of a modern language beyond S2 cannot be the right balance for many of those pupils.
There must also be safeguards to ensure that we do not create a two-tier system. I grew up in an area not dissimilar to Whifflet in another part of Lanarkshire and for me modern languages broadened my horizons and provided a rich experience.
We also need to ask whether it needs to be all or nothing. Yes, maybe we need to free up some curricular time but shouldn't all our youngsters have at least some partial linguistic competence and cultural awareness as part of a broad educational experience?
Finally, let me agree with a point which Michael O'Neill, North Lanarkshire's director of education, made and that is the greater motivation among pupils studying Italian and Spanish. There is some clear statistical evidence regarding Spanish and it was one of the failings of the ministerial action group on languages that it did not examine this in the detail that it merited.