There has been a steep drop in the number of entries to the three most popular languages in Scottish schools between 2017 and 2018.
Tes Scotland analysis of Scottish Qualifications Authority data has found a combined 5.2 per cent drop – for French, German and Spanish – across National 4, National 5, Higher and to Advanced Higher.
The Scottish government had argued that a previous analysis of languages entries this year against those in 2013 should be treated with caution, as it involved comparisons of current and previous qualifications.
The new analysis reveals a 5.2 per cent drop in like-for-like qualifications between 2017 and 2018 – in a year when entries to all subjects at these levels fell by 3.8 per cent – which has prompted concern among languages advocates. However, they also say that with primary schools factored in, more pupils in Scotland are learning languages than ever.
In recent years, the rise of Spanish has partly compensated for the decreasing numbers taking French and German. However, the analysis reveals a decrease in the number of Higher entries in this subject for the first time since 2010, albeit a marginal one.
There have been steep drops in entries for French (17.5 per cent) and German (20 per cent) since 2016 – the first year that the new Higher was run on its own, after one year of overlap with the previous version.
Although German has been on the slide for many years – Higher entries were overtaken by Spanish in 2009 – the decline in French, which is still easily the most popular language in Scottish schools, is striking.
Fhiona Mackay, director of Scilt, Scotland’s National Centre for Languages, is particularly “disappointed” by National 5 entries, which fell by nearly 1,000 – or 10 per cent – from 2017 to 2018.
“It’s a concern to see such a drop in French, even if it is offset to a degree with a rise in Spanish,” she said.
“German continues to be a concern, too, for all who are invested in the language. The numbers at Higher appear to be relatively stable. But lower uptake at N5 this year is likely to impact on next year’s Higher entries.”
Mackay added: “The good news is that candidates’ performance remains very strong, with consistently high numbers of passes in all languages compared with the national average.”
She also warned against focusing only on national qualifications as “we have more young people than ever learning languages in Scottish schools”.
For example, she says, the primary sector is embracing the national 1+2 policy, which aims to have children learning two additional languages. A national requirement for a second additional language to be offered in the early part of secondary school by 2021 will improve things further.
Mackay says the Language for Life and Work Award available in various languages at level 4 (equivalent to N4) and level 3 has proven popular, with nearly 3,000 awards, while the rising numbers taking Mandarin, although still small, are “promising”.
But she added: “As a language community, we need to galvanise our efforts to make sure the message is heard that English is not enough.”
Education secretary John Swinney said: “Since 2013, we have invested an additional £27.2 million to help local authorities implement the 1+2 language policy. There is now a broad diversity of languages offered to qualification level and a strong interest in the skills-based awards in modern languages. These complement the national qualifications and provide additional ways for young people’s language learning at school to be recognised.”
This is an edited version of an article in the 17 August edition of Tes Scotland. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. This week's Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here.