Black mark for HMI

20th November 1998 at 00:00
MANY OF the criticisms in the HMI report on the teaching of modern languages in Scotland serve only to undermine the credibility of the Inspectorate among teachers. For example, it is almost unbelievable that teachers should be criticised for using courses which stress the importance of speaking. Since 50 per cent of the compulsory marks for Standard grade are for speaking, is it surprising that teachers do not give as much time to the "optional" writing paper? Who recommended the 50 per cent weighting for speaking in the first place?

It is also stated that many teachers are failing to keep pace with research. Even if that is true it is because the issue of workload has never been properly addressed. Is there any evidence that teachers of other subjects are keeping up with research?

The reasons for the miserable 11 per cent uptake at Higher are complex. They include a general undervaluing of the usefulness of modern languages in the employment market and, I would contend, the subject's difficulty vis-a-vis others, rather than the lack of intellectual challenge at S grade.

It is illogical to say that pupils drop out after S grade because the subject is insufficiently challenging (ie too easy) while maintaining that only the most able (those who go on to Higher) are successful. What really puts pupils off is the sheer amount of assessment involved in the S grade modern languages.

Compulsory foreign language teaching in S3-S4 has resulted in classes at or near the contractual maximum for non-practical subjects and a reduction in teaching time so that local authorities can avoid having to employ more teachers. Consequently there is less time available to be spent on the writing "option". This initiative, like the primary project, has been carried out on the cheap and has, not surprisingly, resulted in failure.

It would be pointless to look at the teaching of modern languages in isolation. One of the main difficulties, as recognised by principal examiners, which candidates have to confront in Credit level and Higher reading papers is their inability to write coherent answers in English.

For many, the intellectual challenge of systematic grammatical study is one for which they have not been prepared earlier in their school career and one which they encounter only in modern languages. Teachers resort to teaching isolated phrases in order to get their pupils through the Standard grade examination and that, admittedly, results in boredom.

The Government's review is welcome but unless it looks at all language teaching, including English, we will soon see the demise of all foreign language teaching in what is supposed to be a newly self-confident, outward-looking Scotland.

Martin Rogan Principal teacher of modern languages Maxwelltown High, Dumfries

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