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Pupils fail to mind their languages

One of the top scoring councils in national examinations - East Renfrewshire - is the latest education authority to express concern about the teaching of modern languages.

Research into poor attainment levels was commissioned this week following an analysis of exam results over the past three years which showed pupils performed less well in modern languages at both Standard grade and Higher than they did in other subjects.

A report by John Wilson, East Renfrewshire's head of quality development, noted: "Performance levels in modern languages at Standard grade and Higher are all the more disappointing considering the investment that has been made, nationally and locally, in implementing foreign language learning in primary schools."

Each of the council's 23 primaries will be able to offer a European language from primary 6 by October. Research will focus on a sample of five primaries, and all seven secondary modern languages departments will be scrutinised to check on how they organise, deliver and teach the subject.

Jim McVittie, headteacher of St Ninian's High in Eastwood, said the poor exam results were "very regrettable, considering the huge amount of time and money that has been invested in modern languages". He believes the introduction in 1992 of a Languages For All policy, making study of a foreign language compulsory up to 16, had led modern languages teachers to become "understandably preoccupied with the less able, trying to keep their interest going and avoid discipline problems."

He added: "Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far and modern languages teachers now need to bring more rigour and grammatical structure into their work. "

East Renfrewshire's experience reflects the disquiet expressed by Glasgow officials in June at the poor take-up of modern languages after fourth year. National figures showed only 12 per cent of the age-group sat a Higher modern language in 1996 compared with 36 per cent in 1975. Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, said the statistics were "among the most depressing I have seen since coming into this job".

Mr McVittie said he would not support making modern languages compulsory for the post-16 years at this stage. "We are not ready for compulsory modern languages in the fifth and sixth years. The subject is meeting huge resistance among pupils and any such step would be counter-productive."

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