School qualifications are failing to keep pace with immigration in Scotland, with the result that the language skills of thousands of children and young people from Poland are not being recognised, campaigners have warned.
According to the latest census, carried out in 2011, Poles are Scotland's largest migrant group. They number 61,000, overtaking the 49,000-strong Pakistani population, which was the largest migrant group at the time of the 2001 census.
However, although it is possible to sit National and Higher exams in Urdu there are no national qualifications in Polish in Scotland. GCSE and A- level qualifications in the language are available in other parts of the UK. But support from Scottish schools and local authorities for Polish students to take these qualifications is patchy, according to Beata Kohlbek, who sits on the Polish Council, a body set up by the Polish Consulate General in Edinburgh to campaign on issues affecting the community.
"There are lots of different reasons why this issue is important. One is that this would be recognition of the language and culture that Polish people who come to live here bring with them," Dr Kohlbek said. "Another important issue is that a Polish exam would offer Polish young people a qualification in which they can secure quite a good grade.
"These students' English is not always of a high level so they don't necessarily secure good grades in other exams; sometimes a high mark in Polish can open doors to a university or college course.
"We think councils and schools should embrace that. It would be an acknowledgement of the fact that they come to this country with a ready- made language and they should be allowed to have a qualification in that."
Antonella Sorace, professor of developmental linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, said that all languages introduced by immigration should be "recognised as a resource" and not undervalued because they were not widely spoken. If migrant children maintained their native language it could improve their English as well as their ability to learn other languages, she said.
In some local authorities there was no provision at all for children wanting to take Polish exams, Dr Kohlbek said. However, she warned schools against entering Polish students for exams they had not been prepared for even if these were in their native language.
"Just because they speak the language, that does not mean they can come in and sit an exam," she said. "It would be terribly unfair to have to sit any exam without having had a little bit of guidance from a teacher."
Awareness of the importance of multilingualism needed to be raised not just at school, council or national level but also among parents, Professor Sorace argued. "Widely spoken languages have more currency and often other languages are seen as not worth learning or keeping," she said.
"These languages can be seen as a burden; some parents think that two languages is too much. We are trying to change attitudes so people recognise that for a child more than one language is a great resource that really can change the brain in a beneficial way."
A spokesman for the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) said: "There are Polish language awards and units available as part of our Modern Languages for Life and Work provision, but we have had no sustained demand to create a national course. SQA modern language courses are based on learning a language rather than being targeted at native speakers. SQA always keeps its suite of language qualifications under review."