Language uptake may be blooming, but `all is not rosy'

21st August 2015 at 01:00
Higher entries increase as CfE is blamed for subjects' `collapse'

Recent improvements in uptake do not spell the end of the decline in language learning, the president of the Scottish Association for Language Teaching has warned.

Gillian Campbell-Thow told TESS this week that while there was a "need to be optimistic", she did not believe "the magic wand has been waved and all is rosy in the garden".

Figures released by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) on exam results day earlier this month revealed an increase in entries for most modern languages at Higher level, leading some to believe that the decline of recent years had been reversed. The number of students sitting the new or old Higher exam in French was almost 10 per cent more than last year at 4,572 compared with 4,157.

The increase in Spanish was even more significant, with entries rising 28 per cent from 1,880 last year to 2,413 this year. In German, the total increased from 1,006 in 2014 to 1,114. Pass rates were also up.

However, the number of Chinese language Higher entries dropped from 100 to 89. This was despite significant investment in this area and news that a further 21 Confucius Classrooms would be set up to teach Mandarin to primary pupils in Scotland, on top of the 14 that already exist. Funding for the extension of the programme will come from Hanban, a public institution affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education.

"I don't think we are anywhere near addressing the decline in languages but it is a step in the right direction," Ms Campbell-Thow said. While there was a mix of old and new Highers, "we don't really have a firm grasp on how much impact the new qualifications are having on uptake," she added.

Ms Campbell-Thow said progress was being made on the Scottish government's 1+2 language strategy, which will be fully implemented by 2020. Under the plans, every child must learn a modern language from P1 onwards, and a second from no later than P5.

However, Ms Campbell-Thow said progress was "variable across authorities, with little parity between them, even in some cases little parity between learning communities".

She added: "Some local authorities have taken the decision only to do particular languages, which has impacted on their ability to offer a wide curriculum for students, whereas others are still trying to support varied languages, even when there are small numbers."

The reduction in options at senior school level meant languages had to fight for their rightful place in the curriculum. "We find ourselves constantly having to justify why languages are important," Ms Campbell-Thow said.

Choices squeezed

Languages expert Jim Scott said his analysis of the 2015 SQA figures shows that "almost all modern languages have collapsed over the last two years since the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence".

Dr Scott added that curriculum options were a major contributor: "If, as many authorities and schools have now chosen, there are only six courses, that leaves most S4 pupils facing a fairly stark choice among languages, creative and aesthetic, or the technologies."

A Scottish government spokesman said the rise in young people gaining a Higher or Advanced Higher language qualification in 2015 was "a sign that our ambitious 1+2 policy is having an impact, with pupils and parents increasingly recognising that language skills open up opportunities in life and work".

Glasgow gains

Glasgow City Council has expanded its language team and will employ 26 foreign language assistants this year, an increase on last year.

The authority is running primary language classes in French, Spanish, Italian and German, and will add Urdu after Christmas. Primary staff with high-level language competency or language degrees can receive training to deliver lessons, and the authority works with a number of outside partners to improve its offer.

This week, it was announced that Silke Bryce, a German teacher at Hollybrook Academy in Glasgow, had received a "special mention" at last month's German Teacher Awards. The event run by the German Embassy recognises outstanding achievements by teachers of German in primary and secondary schools in the UK.

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