HMI's forked tongue
HOW SAD that a scathing HMI report on the state of modern language teaching has to appear just as Scotland is preparing to take up its own place in Europe.
The shortcomings of both primary language teaching and compulsory four-year secondary study are well known to most French, German, Spanish and Italian teachers. The first-year class whose competence depends not only on the teaching style, but also on the linguistic competence of upper primary teachers; the third or fourth-year class of disaffected and demotivated pupils (often mostly boys) who see little relevance in languages.
But the infamous "crap" subject for the infamous demotivated pupil can and does come to life for lots of skilled teachers in Scotland who are blessed with decent resources and highly committed colleagues.
Problems have been and will continue to be overcome. However, there is one fundamental issue that has underpinned language teaching in Scotland at all levels. Resource material, with few exceptions, is published by the major publishers based variously in Oxford, Walton-on-Thames, Cheltenham and so on. I have reviewed modern languages materials for The TES Scotland for 15 years. Throughout that time, I have made it my business to look at resources from both an English and Scottish perspective. (I taught in England for four years and worked in an English exam board before returning to Scotland.) In 1992, I decided that subtle mentions of the problem were getting nowhere. I suggested that publishers should go further than simply recognise the existence of Standard and Higher grades with the ubiquitous phrases "also suitable for Standard grade" and "in line with Scottish guidelines". Teachers in Scottish departments do not want notes and complex grid references for the English national curriculum and GCSE. They need their own.
Costly investment in excellent multimedia courses left departments still with time-consuming preparation of Standard grade syllabuses and assessment programmes. Publication of national 5-14 guidelines for modern European languages in February 1993 made no discernible difference to newly published resources.
Five years on, though, there is good news. Thomas Nelson and Oxford University Press have led the way in producing 5-14 teacher guidelines for their major courses: Route Nationale, Zickzack Neu and Equipe. Make enough noise and someone eventually listens. In this case, the person who made the noise was given the job. It has meant hours and hours in front of a screen surrounded by books, worksheets, activity cards and, of course, the national guidelines.
Researching the work, I spoke to teachers and was shocked at how many admitted to not having seen the Scottish Office document. Asking for their advice on the subject, I was frequently told that I "would know a lot more about it all" than they did. I have been out of the classroom for nearly two years and know "all about it" only by combing through every last detail of the document.
Teachers said they were "desperate to have anything" that linked with 5-14 because they were under increasing pressure from management and the directorate to come into line with other subject areas.
We are now faced with an extraordinary situation. At last, some English-based publishers commission detailed 5-14 correlation documents and referenced contents guides for a total of nine books; five for 5-14 and four for Standard grade. Yet we are told that the most scathing report ever produced by the Inspectorate is to prompt a "substantial overhaul of modern language teaching in primary and secondary".
Before embarking on the work in April of this year, I was given an absolute assurance from the highest levels that there were "absolutely no plans to review the national guidelines for modern European languages 5-14 in the foreseeable future".
So what exactly are we to expect from this review? A new document? A revised version of the same? Will these then give birth to a baby Higher Still replacing the now mature Standard grade?
It is hardly surprising that publishers have paid scant attention to the Scottish system. It is laudable that they have finally conceded. It is appalling that their new materials may already have inbuilt obsolescence.
Let us hope that teachers, five years after publication of any newly reviewed national guidelines, will have immediate access to them and be required to read them and work with them. Surely they will then appreciate that a hard-fought battle with publishers has been won. Commercial courses have guidelines for Scotland. The guidelines can be implemented successfully and the future of modern languages in our schools and a bilingual place in Europe can be secured.
Eleanor Caldwell is a modern languages specialist and freelance writer.