Scots find choice answer

Changes north of the Border show how flexible pathways through languages can be offered to post-16s. Douglas Angus reports The number of pupils taking modern languages post-16 is in slow but steady decline - 48,826 sat A-levels in 1996 compared with 51,326 in 1992. The problem is just as bad in Scotland and the trend shows no sign of reversing this year, even though those who took GCSE or Standard grade exams this summer were the first cohort to have worked its way through the system since a modern language became compulsory five years ago.

But there is hope on the horizon. Imaginative changes planned to the post-16 system in Scotland show how the main obstacles to continuing language studies in that age group could be removed. o Scottish pupils typically study five subjects in the equivalent of the English sixth form, where two or three A-levels are more the norm. In Scotland, as in England and Wales, many teachers believe the post-16 examination system in all subjects is failing to meet all students' needs. A variety of remedies have been proposed. In 1992 the Howie Report suggested a new set of 16-18 examinations inspired by the French Baccalaureate, the Danish system and vocational education. It proposed a hybrid system that would have been new, and peculiar to Scotland. After consultations, the proposals were rejected before being reborn as Higher Still. The scheme is set for introduction in June 1999, around the same time as the English modular A-levels.

There are many similarities between the two systems. Both offer a broader curriculum, a new format to cope with a much larger number of students staying on, and an attempt to achieve parity of esteem between what were previously viewed as academic and vocational courses. But there are also many differences. Language teachers in England and Wales might find some aspects of Scotland's Higher Still programme instructive.

Implementation of Higher Still, originally planned for 1997, was delayed by a year, to allow extensive consultation with teachers and educational bodies. A series of meetings organised throughout Scotland involved every modern-languages department in the country. A group was set up to consider the responses and report back. The revised proposals then went through the same process.

Implementation was then delayed for a further year, to give teachers and lecturers more time to get to grips with the new courses, to allow for development of support material, and to prepare for the changes to the existing structures. The development officers working on modern languages were all practising teachers, lecturers or advisers, who were seconded on a part-time basis to the programme. They collaborated with the inspectorate and the examination boards to devise the new arrangements.

Until April, Scotland had only two bodies providing assessment for learners in secondary and further education - the Scottish Examination Board, which was the equivalent of the various examination boards south of the Border, and the Scottish Vocational Education Council, which had a similar role to the Business and Technology Education Council. These two merged in April to form the Scottish Qualifications Authority, so from now on all Scottish qualifications for 16-18 will come from one source. This simplified the merger of vocational and academic qualifications.

What has been the result? We have a series of five levels in languages - level 5 (Advanced Higher) is broadly equivalent to A-level, level 4 (Higher) is closer to AS level, level 3 (Intermediate 2) is at a similar level to GCSE AB, and so on. What we need for the future is flexibility, and a system that develops basic language skills and allows a vocational option, and which will remain of equal value to academic study. So each course is divided into units, with the three higher levels having a core 80-hour unit based on the four main language skills, and an optional 40-hour unit. This may be mainly literary or text-based, or it may be a language in work unit, deriving from a particular vocational context.

Learners may choose a unit at an appropriate level, which is assessed internally with external moderation, or may choose a course which includes the appropriate units and an external assessment. Individual units may also be constituent parts of group awards at each of the levels. These will replace GSVQs (Scottish equivalent of GNVQs). This will allow a larger number of students to carry on with a language.

Teachers and lecturers must be confident of assessing at the right level, so assessment material for the units will be provided and kept in a national database or "bank" of materials. Many centres will want some independence in settling assessment, so the National Assessment Bank will also contain graded examples of students' work as guidelines. This will also allow centres to produce their own assessment instruments.

A national programme of training provided by the Higher Still Development Unit will help each establishment offering modern languages at this level. A needs analysis group, made up of teachers and lecturers, has the task of monitoring the programme, and spotlighting deficiencies in training and materials. What really matters to us is that modern languages starts to make up the lost ground, and attracts those who have had success during the years of compulsory schooling, but are leaving us. To do this we have to become flexible - the present system is too rigid.

Scottish pupils are rejecting modern languages at Higher level. And elsewhere in the UK students are voting with their feet and, despite the brave new world of 1992, rejecting formal study of a language. Many do not want to study literature. Most want to combine the study of a language with something else. This makes sense, as language graduates seem to leave university with a limited range of options. They can teach, become a bilingual secretary or give up any prospect of using their languages. We have to provide courses that meet the needs of all language students. We have to provide courses that develop skills learned in GCSE or Standard grade, and enable students to use them in a real and practical way.

We must also provide courses that teachers and lecturers are able and happy to deliver. And we have to provide the logistical and material support to allow them to develop new courses. If we have reluctant teachers, we will certainly have reluctant learners or, worse, no learners. In Scotland language teachers believe the new proposals can work and must come in soon to address the problems of take-up.

Douglas Angus is a former chair of the Scottish Association for Language Teaching and a principal teacher in modern languages at Kelso High School, Kelso

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