Its report and a ministerial response are expected to be issued next month. The group was set up in 1998 by Helen Liddell, the then education minister, after a highly critical HMI report about the position of modern languages in both primary and secondary schools.
John Mulgrew, the director of education in East Ayrshire who chaired the group, would not be drawn on the detail of its recommendations when he addressed the annual conference of the Scottish Association for Language Teaching in Stirling on Saturday. But he promised "a national support strategy" which would set up a framework for action across Scotland, while giving schools and authorities more flexibility. The report would be "light on philosophy and rhetoric".
Despite Mr Mulgrew's reticence, it was clear that he believes current approaches to initial training of primary teachers and languages for all have had their day. Primary teachers rely on a 27-day in-service training programme to acquire competence in languages, which is widely criticised. The action group believes a more thoroughgoing approach is necessary at the initial stages of training.
Mr Mulgrew told the conference, attended by around 400 teachers from across the country, that provision for modern languages in primary is "fragmented and inadequate", while primary teachers' initial training generally is "cluttered and confused". He admitted he had a "difficult" meeting with the deans of the education faculties responsible for teacher training.
The result was that 5-14 modern languages was a patchy experience. Many teachers doubted their ability to cope, training was inadequate and post-training support uneven.
Although he did not confirm or deny that compulsory modern
languages from S1 to S4 would disappear, Mr Mulgrew commented: "We are not going to be recommending more of the same."
He asked: "Is it time to withdraw from behind the protection of compulsory modern languages in secondary schools? Has it been a success? Can modern languages not thrive on their own terms?"
The group is, however, likely to make a strong case for modern languages as a key ngredient in the secondary curriculum and may even specify a recommended length of time for study across both primary and secondary, which schools and authorities would then be left to meet as they saw fit.
The report will for the first time set out a rationale for studying languages, Mr Mulgrew said, and it would urge that the marketing of modern languages to pupils should be stepped up so that they appreciate the benefits in terms of jobs, communication skills and a rounded education.
Mr Mulgrew also urged modern language teachers themselves to be more proactive in making the case for their subject. He acknowledged, however, that teachers would need to have more support and training.
More widespread use of technology, particularly through the Internet, was critical if pupils are to be stimulated and inspired. They regard much modern language material as "irrelevant and often outdated", and Mr Mulgrew said that language classrooms fail to capitalise on young people's familiarity with electronic media and entertainment.
He ran into criticism, however, over what was seen as an over-
reliance on the good offices of education authorities and senior managements in schools. Wendy Taylor, principal teacher of modern languages at Liberton High in Edinburgh, said that languages were being axed in many parts of Scotland as a cost-saving measure, which led to schools offering only one foreign language. Ms Taylor believed resources were being switched to support English and maths where attainment targets had to be met.
She also suggested that many "empowered" senior managements took a narrow view of the curriculum, and feared that the position of modern languages would be further undermined if the policy of compulsory languages for all were to be abandoned.
Roderick MacKenzie, adviser in Scottish Borders, also expressed concern at laying too much emphasis on the role of local authorities. There must be a national approach which did not put languages at risk when there were budgetary constraints.
In response, Mr Mulgrew asked why the place of modern languages was so insecure that headteachers could reduce provision. "The notion that timetabling should dictate the learning and teaching provision is just outmoded," he commented. But, without providing any further details, he emphasised that his group's report would be supportive and that those who were concerned were "worrying unnecessarily".