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McConnell changes track on languages

Any fading notion that the principal modern languages of French and German are compulsory for all secondary pupils was finally scotched this week by the First Minister and the education director in his own authority.

The Scottish Executive's already muddled policy on modern languages was effectively undermined by Jack McConnell and Michael O'Neill at a national conference in North Lanarkshire on diversity in secondary education.

Mr McConnell made it clear that vocational education was more important for thousands of pupils who have been subjected to a largely academic curriculum to which they are ill-suited.

In a telling passage in a state of the nation address, the First Minister called for a decisive leap beyond the strait-jacket of limited choice. "We need to move away from forcing young people in S3 and S4 to learn modern languages when they need skills and training in other areas," he said in an unscripted message.

Mr McConnell added: "We must not force another generation of young people into a uniformity of academic choices."

Mr O'Neill, whose authority tops the unofficial HMI performance rankings, repeated the assertion that modern languages will be sacrificed to free time for other aspects of an emerging and reformed curriculum.

"I am an advocate of modern languages," Mr O'Neill said, "and I did French at university and I realise the opportunities - but not by compulsion and not for all. Many young people are not clear about the advantage of a Standard grade Foundation award in French when they are looking for a job in Whifflet (a disadvantaged area of Coatbridge)."

Expanding on his views later, Mr O'Neill said that young people should be able to opt into languages and want to learn them.

"For our young people in North Lanarkshire, Italian and Spanish have more relevance than French or German. Our recent links with Pistoia in Italy and Majorca have led to large numbers of young people visiting these areas and being more enthusiastic about the language. Equally in terms of schools offering Spanish and Italian, the results are generally better than in traditional subjects," he said.

Secondary heads in North Lanarkshire are already ditching modern languages.

Frank Reilly, acting head of Our Lady's High, Cumbernauld, said his pupils over the years were poorly motivated to learn languages and the school had always been stronger in science and technical subjects.

This year it removed modern languages from the core and stepped up work with feeder primaries. For one hour a week, a modern languages teacher works with P6 and P7 pupils. "Modern languages will build from the ground level," Mr Reilly said.

So far, 55 per cent of the 170 pupils in S3 have opted to drop languages.

At Our Lady's High, Motherwell, vocational courses have replaced modern languages and science as an option for some.

John O'Keane, head of service in North Lanarkshire, accepted there was a dilemma about pupils' entitlement to 500 hours of language learning - a stipulation from the Mulgrew report on modern languages - if there was no compulsion beyond S2.

Dr O'Keane also recognised there would be local imbalances of teachers if pupils had more options. "If there is a surplus of teachers in a particular area, it's a wave we have to ride. But there won't be a surplus of teachers overall. Teachers will not be out of work," he said.

Earlier this year Ken Muir, lead inspector for secondary education, insisted that there would be no curriculum "free-for-all" after the First Minister loosened the reins. Any school that wanted to drop modern languages would be forced to justify its decision on "reasons of principle and not just reasons of expediency".

A succession of headteachers said at the conference that HM inspectors had yet to get the political message.

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