‘Learning languages is crucial – wherever pupils live’

The suggestion that pupils living in areas of deprivation are denied the chance to learn languages is false and misleading, says Gillian Campbell-Thow

‘Learning languages is crucial – wherever pupils live’

If someone asked me what my Mastermind specialist subject was, I think I would have a few I could do. Keanu Reeves quotes, or maybe the quickest way to get to a school in Glasgow on public transport.

But my specialist subject for a number of years has been defending why we teach languages in schools. Granted, I am horrifically biased – I know first-hand the transformative power of learning a language.

You see, that's what happened to me. Je suis SIMD 1. (For those not au fait with this particularly Scottish jargon, that’s “Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation”, with SIMD 1 being the highest level of deprivation.)

You can’t imagine how upsetting it was to hear that there are "deprived schools in Glasgow not teaching languages”, as was suggested a few weeks ago at the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee.


How the statistics look: Steep year-on-year drop in languages entries

Quick read: Subject choice has narrowed, say teachers

Long read: Where next for Gaelic as it gains ground in education?


First of all, let’s talk words. We don’t have deprived schools. We have schools that may be in areas of deprivation, but that doesn’t mean there is a poverty of aspiration or provision. Any kind of chat where we start talking about access to curriculum based on postcode has no place at this table.

Yes, there is a bigger debate about curriculum builds and subjects. However, when on Mastermind, know your subject.

Having worked in schools in areas of very high social deprivation, there has certainly never been a selection process of subjects that are not offered to children deemed to come from a deprived area. No suggestion of “Sorry, you can’t do languages today. You are too poor.”

Secondly, let me clarify for anyone who is in doubt, in a city with speakers of about 140 languages, our secondary schools continue to offer pathways for languages, ranging from the “broad general education” (that is, the first three years of secondary school) to the senior phase (the last three years). Fact.

We spend so much time trying to build our children up and assuring them that their postcode has no influence on what they do or where they go. One word, and it’s all undone. You and your deprived schools.

Here’s the thing: why is it always about languages?

They represent the ability to communicate, the ability to understand another culture, the opportunity to learn about customs, literature, music, film and food.

If you are going to use deprivation as an excuse not to learn a language, then this SIMD 1 child is prepared to tell you politely that’s boeuf haché. (Non-French speakers, I think you have the context you need to get my drift.)

I am privileged to work with some of the most talented teachers in the business. Teachers who enthuse, inspire and encourage young people to embrace the ability to communicate. Teachers who want the very best for every one of their learners. Teachers who teach languages in school, no matter the postcode. Languages are crucial – wherever pupils live.

Given recent events in Parliament, the words of Keanu Reeves come to mind: “The simple act of paying attention can take you a long way.”

Gillian Campbell-Thow is a quality-improvement officer for modern languages and Gaelic at Glasgow City Council. In 2014, she was Scotland’s Teacher of the Year

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