It's not all right, Jack

5th December 2003 at 00:00
Teachers cannot be enthusiastic about the future of languages if ministers' policies continue to be so short-sighted, says John Muir

Your leading article (TESS, November 7) suggesting that First Minister Jack McConnell has "muddied the waters" with his recent comments on modern languages sums up the despair felt by many involved in this area of the curriculum.

Modern linguists, bruised a few years ago by HMI's damning curriculum report, were pleased that a way forward seemed to be mapped out in Citizens of a Multilingual World (the Mulgrew report), which was endorsed by ministers and HMI alike. Initial confusion about the interpretation of "entitlement" seemed to be cleared up by confirmation from the inspectorate that schools should not interpret this as a reason to restrict the uptake of modern languages in timetables, particularly from S3 upwards.

Despite this, there was both real and anecdotal evidence across the country that some headteachers took advantage of this early confusion to allow pupils to opt out of a modern language. Of equal concern is the word out there that even pupils who wish to continue with a language beyond S2 are unable to do so because of restrictions in subject choice columns.

Mr McConnell's reported statement that "we need to move away from forcing young people in S3 and S4 to learn modern languages when they need skills and training in other areas" must have been music to the ears of the sceptics. The effective endorsement of this view by Douglas Osler in last week's TESS is surely a double whammy. Are those the same leaders who supported Mulgrew in order to counter the norm of our monolingualism?

Their views, together with the actions of some schools, fuel the perception that taking a modern language is "too academic", indeed "unnecessary", for some pupils as they move into the world of work. In most European countries, many of whose citizens put us to shame with their linguistic competences, access is not denied to the "non-academic": what they do is make sure that the content and delivery of courses are appropriate to the aptitude and ability of such pupils.

While the focus of my concern seems to be on the secondary sector, there are, by implication, likely to be greater expectations from primary teachers to fulfil the need to build a firmer foundation in modern languages. How else can we meet the Mulgrew recommendation that pupils be given 500 hours in the subject?

Ten years on, the Modern Languages in the Primary School (MLPS) programme has generally been hailed as a success, with supporting evidence from the recently published survey from the Assessment of Achievement Programme. But local authorities are struggling to meet the growing demand to train teachers to deliver it to P6 and P7. Talk of introducing language(s) to every stage is optimistic, indeed undeliverable, in all but a handful of situations.

Such training was always seen as a stopgap until the primary BEd included a modern language for all students. It is to be hoped that the review of pre-service training will consider this; but recent remarks I have picked up from the sector would indicate that I dare not hold my breath in anticipation. As more trained primary teachers move on or out of the profession, it is unlikely that we will be able to sustain provision without an influx of new blood able to deliver a modern language.

Even if there is a commitment from the universities, it will take at least four years for any policy to have an impact. Arguably, it could be far longer if we have to wait until all potential applicants have taken a modern language beyond S2; which brings me back to my opening apprehension about the uptake of languages in secondary schools.

Is this indeed a vicious circle, which will see the demise of modern languages in the primary school sooner rather than later, with the consequent impact on secondary education and beyond? To adapt a caption which I once saw in an optician's advert: "It is hard to be optimistic if ministers and HMI have misty optics."

John Muir is a quality development officer in Highland. The views expressed are his own.

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