Aberdeen experiment needs native speakers;News;News and opinion

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
An ambitious attempt to introduce languages in early primary may fail for lack of fluent staff. David Henderson reports.

ABERDEEN IS set to become the first authority in Scotland to introduce partial-immersion teaching in primary schools. The plan is for five-year-olds to learn French, German or Spanish through games, songs and paintings.

As pupils move through primary, they will reinforce their foreign language skills through environmental studies between P3 and P5 and mathematics and health in the final two years. But very few staff on the city's books have the skills needed.

The city is almost certain to win Scottish Executive backing for the project. Three extra teachers, all fluent native speakers, will work alongside existing class teachers for the yet unnamed school. Thirteen schools are competing for the prized initiative due to begin next August.

But the city concedes finding qualified and skilled staff may be difficult. A feasibility study carried out by staff at the Northern College says the quality of the immersion teacher is the "single most important factor" in the success of such schemes, first tried in Canada 30 years ago.

Researchers say: "The first prerequisite is a competent primary teacher, child-centred, able to manage, motivate and teach in early stages of primary, knowledgeable about elementary reading and with a commitment to, and additional preparation for, immersion teaching."

But a trawl through current staff found that the vast majority have nowhere near the fluency required, and only two come up to standard. One is an Italian English teacher, and Italian is unlikely to be popular with parents. The other is qualified in French and English but did not want to become involved.

Only a handful of native speakers are currently training in Scottish teacher education institutions, and there are no native-speaker primary teachers on the city's supply list. Advertising abroad is not a viable option because staff will not be familiar with the Scottish curriculum.

Northern College researchers say effective immersion teachers use a range of strategies to put their message across, including frequent use of repetition, restatements and summaries. It could be argued, they add, that the job would place "excessive demands" on a newly-qualified teacher. However, with extra training, a competent graduate could be employed.

But John Stodter, director of education, said they had identified up to six staff who could do the job, although he acknowledged there was a problem in sustaining it.

He argues there will be significant benefits in language acquisition, communication and knowledge about different cultures and in other broad cognitive skills. "Doing a second language will lead to gains in other subjects in the fullness of time," he said.

Ministers were emphasising raising attainment and diversity of approaches in improving standards, and this was one method. "It's quite acceptable to do this for some pupils as long as it's not an elitist approach we're adopting, and it is not," Mr Stodter said.

He is not a fan of current methods of foreign language learning in primaries that fail to produce continuity in secondary. "If you costed the modern languages in primary project over the years, carry out a best value approach in terms of outcomes, it would not have been a great success," he said.

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