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Scotland ahead in drive to diversify

...but the progress in primary schools is breeding its own problems north of the border. Brendan O'Malley reports. Diversification into languages other than French is significantly stronger in Scottish primaries and secondaries than in their English, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts, according to the TESCILT modern languages survey published last month.

In the past five years 36 per cent of Scottish schools have changed language provision to offer more diversification, compared with 18 per cent of all UK schools.

Only 32.7 per cent of Scottish secondaries teach French only in S1; while 52 per cent offer German, 11.4 per cent offer Spanish and 4.8 per cent offer Italian. By contrast in the UK as a whole 54.8 per cent of schools offer French only; while 33 per cent offer German to some pupils, 10.2 per cent Spanish and 0.7 per cent Italian in the first year of secondary education. In Scotland 63.9 per cent of schools offer a language other than French in S1, compared with just over 44 per cent of schools across the UK.

According to Dick Johnstone, director of the Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research, the spread of languages other than French is the result of a strong national policy backed up by strong local authority support, factors which are currently missing south of the border.

"I think there are two reasons," he says. "Scotland is a smaller country than England and has a more coherent education system. The language teaching profession as a whole in Scotland has been very much behind diversification for a long time and those who are not language specialists appreciate the force of the argument.

"The other side to it is that it was very much a national policy in setting up the pilot projects for primary level to have some of them in Italian, Spanish and German as well as French. There was very clear Scottish Office backing for diversification."

A key factor in Scotland has been the strength of primary languages for which, unlike in England, there is a national policy covering training and diversification. Under a Scottish Office Education Department national project, primary teachers are given time out from teaching to receive language training and primaries have been organised in clusters to discuss and reach agreement on what language they and the secondaries they feed will teach. The SOED has also paid for the training and the production of support materials described by one adviser as "excellent" in five languages: French, German, Spanish, Italian and Russian.

As a result Scottish primaries, though they teach up to age 11-12, are far more diversified than English primaries. Of the sample in the national survey, 65.5 per cent of Scottish secondaries said some of their pupils studied French at primary, but 26.6 per cent said some pupils studied German, 6.5 per cent said Spanish, 3.2 per cent Italian and 1.6 per cent Gaelic.

Among schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland 59.2 per cent of secondaries say some pupils studied French at primary, but only 4.8 per cent said some studied German, 1.3 per cent said Spanish, 0.7 per cent Italian and 0.1 per cent Urdu.

The impact of diversification at secondary level is all the greater because primary language teaching is far more widespread in Scotland: 77 per cent of Scottish secondaries said some of their pupils had started a foreign language in primary school, compared with 59.9 per cent of all UK schools. And 42. 6 per cent of Scottish secondaries said more than 75 per cent of their S1 intake had studied a language at primary level, compared with 27 per cent of all UK secondary level schools. However, where primaries have focused on French, it has had a negative influence on diversification in secondaries.

Despite the success of diversification north of the border, there are several black clouds on the horizon. According to Iain Hirschfeld, a modern languages adviser in Fife region, there is a deep concern among members of the Scottish Association for Language Teaching about the threat to diversification from post-16 reforms and from rectors who want to see a switch back to a focus on one language only in primaries and S1, which inevitably would mean French.

He says German teachers are very worried by advice, sent out with the consultation documents on the proposed merger of the Higher and Scottish vocational education certificates, which advocates a return to a focus on one language only in secondary schools to prevent timetabling complications post-16, when students choose between modular and other programmes of study.

He says a second threat is coming from academy rectors who argue that the success of diversification of languages at primary level is sabotaging their policies for the selection of pupils for particular classes. This is because the pupils who have studied German, for instance, need to be in the same class as others with German rather than being put in classes based on factors such as their ability, or the school house their brother or sister is in. "Rectors are saying life would be easier in S1 if they only offered one language or if only one language was taken in primary school," says Iain Hirschfeld.

The survey indicated that diversification was running out of steam in Scotland, just as it is in England and Wales. Over the next five years only 8.1 per cent of Scottish schools plan to diversify language provision away from French while 6.5 per cent are planning to switch back to French only.

A third concern is the likely impact of the local government reorganisation in Scotland, which will take effect from April 1. The break-up of the biggest authority, Strathclyde, will create units that may not be big enough to cope with providing training for primary teachers and according to SALT a massive number of advisory jobs from the old authorities will not be replaced in the new ones. Dick Johnstone of SCILT says: "There is considerable concern about the level of support for languages from local authorities in the future and whether this coherent system [of education] will be maintained."

Detailed findings of the survey will be published in a Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research report in JuneJuly.

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