When I congratulated a Norwegian teacher on her country's foresight in teaching English to children from the age of seven, she replied that there was little choice. "Do you know of any other country where they speak Norwegian?" The recent report into the teaching of modern languages from a ministerial action group paints a dismal picture before setting out its proposals for improvement. But the view is not all bleak now that we are imitating our European neighbours and teaching languages at a younger age.
The Modern Languages in the Primary School Project (MLPS) was born a decade ago to train volunteer teachers on a 27-day course so that French or German could begin at primary 6. Coverage across the country appears to have been patchy but the picture in a number of authorities, including here in Perth and Kinross, has been one of steady progress.
We have trained teachers in every school and the authority is able to claim that all P6 and P7 pupils learn a foreign language, but it is the quality of support provided after initial training which is crucial in establishing language teaching in primary schools. Perth and Kinross has produced a policy and a teaching programme covering classes P6 to S2.
Teachers are offered annual update days in French and German while those who are more ambitious have had the opportunity of Le Weekend, a hotel stay where only French is spoken. Many teachers have also taken advantage of help towards a two-week stay in France, experiencing family and school life.
Headteachers can make or break the project. A timetable has to be drawn up and adhered to since the ideal of a class teacher working with their own class on aforeign language is not always achievable, while there have to be workable arrangements for monitoring, assessing and reporting. Without these a foreign language can be seen by teachers and pupils as just an optional extra.
This approach brings serious implications for secondary schools which now receive children with two years of a foreign language behind them. Prior learning can be developed only through regular liaison and the offer of genuine encouragement to primary colleagues.
A secondary school that continues to regard S1 pupils as starting from a blank page can do immense damage to the enthusiasm of primary teachers and children. Fortunately, most secondary teachers have been very supportive.
But such achievements are built on a fragile base. Progress is only as good as the number of trained teachers. Situations can change quickly. In our own school, the first four MLPS participants have moved on although we have been fortunate to have received funding and volunteers for four replacements. One trained teacher on long-term absence or secondment is all it takes to disrupt a school's modern language efforts when there is not a trained substitute.
Security will come only when new teachers have undertaken training as part of their pre-service courses and are available in large numbers. So far this has not happened but the ministerial action group has rightly identified the matter as a priority for development.
We have a long way to go to catch up in our ability to handle foreign languages confidently but the developments begun by the MLPS project are a large step in the right direction. They deserve the support of everyone.