The halcyon days of languages? They didn't exist.

10th July 2015 at 01:00
New research charts ongoing decline of subject over decades

There has been a go-to narrative in recent years around the health of languages in Scottish schools: essentially, things ain't what they used to be.

Declining numbers and shrinking space in school timetables are contrasted with imagined halcyon days when speaking a foreign tongue was an integral part of a rounded education. But new research shows that modern languages have almost never enjoyed pre-eminence in Scottish schools, and that the current decline is just the latest chapter in a tale of a losing battle.

University of Dundee researcher Jim Scott has carried out what he calls the first major historical overview of languages in Scottish schools for two decades. It shows a precipitous decline at a rate seen only once before, in the late-1990s.

In 2014 there were year-on-year declines of 37 per cent in S4 French, German and Mandarin, as schools took on the new National qualifications. Meanwhile, Spanish, Gaelic and Urdu experienced falls of 20 to 25 per cent.

This was an "unintended consequence" of the new National qualifications, Dr Scott said. Under the reformed system, pupils take fewer subjects than before, often resulting in languages being squeezed out.

Dr Scott stressed, however, that modern languages have enjoyed only two brief "high-water marks" since the subject's first mass take-up after the Second World War: in the mid-1960s and for five or six years from 1988.

Since the late-1990s nearly 40,000 French and German candidates have been lost in courses typically taken in S4, barely compensated by a rise of 3,000 students taking Spanish.

"In the 20 years since 1996, there have only been five years [to 2001] where growth or stability might be claimed," Dr Scott writes in the latest issue of Scottish Languages Review (bit.lyLangReview). He argues that the downward trajectory is largely a result of political instability, with seven different education ministers - and widely differing agendas - in place between 1996 and 2004.

He believes other factors include universities ditching language Highers as an entry requirement for many courses, along with schools removing compulsory languages in S4.

An accelerating decline in attainment since about 2006-07 might be explained by "societal disdain for foreign matters", governmental failures, the ripple effects of the 2008 fiscal crisis and the removal of ring-fenced budgets from local authorities, the paper adds.

Cause for optimism?

Dr Scott finds some cause for optimism in the 1+2 policy announced by junior education minister Alasdair Allan in 2012, which envisages pupils leaving primary school well versed in two languages other than English.

He describes it as "a welcome reassertion of the need for modern languages", although he says it has been placed "under threat from the latest in a line of mutually conflicting initiatives" that have led to the decline in numbers and attainment.

Gillian Campbell-Thow, who chairs the Scottish Association for Language Teaching (Salt), said that Dr Scott made several fair points and also praised 1+2 as "a real chance to reinvigorate languages".

She said: "The future looks bright - we have a great bunch of language teachers, a good suite of qualifications and a compelling case to play an important part in the curriculum to enhance literacy."

To read more on languages, see pages 16-18

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