The Scottish government has been accused of a "dereliction of duty" as new figures show almost a third of Scottish secondaries are failing to teach their pupils a modern language for the first three years of high school – even though Scottish government policy is that children should be learning two foreign languages from upper primary onwards.
A new survey of Scottish councils has revealed that 30 per cent of secondaries are not delivering a second language consistently from S1 to S3.
Scottish government policy states that “language learning is an entitlement for all from P1 to S3”, with the government committed to delivering its 1+2 languages policy by August 2021. This means that pupils should learn two foreign languages – one from P1 and the second from P5 – as well as their mother tongue.
However, the research shows that many secondaries are struggling to deliver even one foreign language for the first three years of high school, let alone two.
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These new figures come at a time when there is real concern over the uptake of languages at qualification level in Scottish secondaries, with Higher French entries last year 27 per cent down on entries in 2012 and German Higher entries down 30 per cent over the same period.
Spanish entries at Higher have, on the other hand, almost doubled but this increase has not compensated for the decreases seen in French and German.
The Languages Strategic Implementation Group set up in 2013 to lead the practical implementation of the 1+2 language learning policy has expressed concern that the term “entitlement” – as in the entitlement to learn a language up to S3 – is too vague and could be being “misinterpreted” by schools as “optional and not a right of the child”.
Members of the group – which includes headteacher, education director and council representatives – are now planning a new programme of engagement with secondary schools in a bid to offer clarity.
However, the new Scottish Conservatives shadow education secretary Jamie Greene said that “prompt and decisive clarification” should be coming from education secretary John Swinney. Schools needed to know if language learning up to S3 was “optional or mandatory”, he said.
Mr Greene, who replaced Liz Smith as the party’s education spokesperson earlier this week, added: “All students at S1-S3 should have the opportunity to learn at the very least one other language, anything less is a dereliction of duty and commitment to foreign language learning by the Scottish government.”
Scottish Labour education spokesman Iain Gray also called on Mr Swinney to “state clearly that the opportunity to learn a foreign language is the right of every child, not an entitlement”.
A Scottish government spokesperson, however, described the figures that had emerged from the survey as “very encouraging”, given they also showed 88 per cent of primary schools were providing a first additional language from P1.
The spokesman said since 2013 funding of more than £40 million had been given to local authorities and partners for the implementation of the 1+2 languages policy.
“The survey shows more young people are learning a language than ever before,” the spokesman added.
Fhiona Mackay, director of Scotland’s National Centre for Languages at the University of Strathclyde, clarified that language learning was supposed to be the right of pupils up to S3. She added: “With August 2021 – the date for full implementation – on the horizon, it is evident that work still needs to be done to ensure that all schools are able to offer all learners their full entitlement to language learning until the end of S3.
“For languages to flourish, we all need to play our part. Teachers in all sectors need to be planning engaging lessons that meet the needs of all learners. Parents need to be aware of how and why their youngsters are learning languages and how best to support them. Children and young people need to be aware of the relevance of languages and the benefits that learning them can bring, both now and in the future.”