Languages are on the rise at Higher

31st March 2006 at 01:00
More students are opting for Highers and sixth-year courses in modern languages, undermining the view that languages are in deep trouble in upper secondary.

But the conflicting view among many language campaigners is that young Scots are falling way behind their European peers in their ability to speak in one or more languages other than English.

As the Royal Society of Edinburgh last week called a special conference to highlight problems in language learning, Chris Dixon, a Strathclyde University lecturer, declared there had been no decline since 1999.

"Let's not think we are in a negative position; we are in a position of growing strength in upper secondary," Mr Dixon said.

Figures released by the Scottish Qualifications Authority show that, since 1999, numbers taking languages have risen significantly, with a 60 per cent increase for Advanced Higher and Certificate of Sixth Year Studies.

In 1999, 7,155 students took modern language Highers, compared with 7,691 in 2005. At CSYS and Advanced Higher, 694 took the qualifications in 1999 against 1,003 in 2005.

Mike Haggerty, SQA spokesman, said: "There have been individual variations but there has been no collapse in entries. The trend is of significant increase, except at Standard grade because of the migration to Intermediate. French is healthy, German is suffering, but Spanish is flourishing."

Of Higher candidates in 2005, 4,500 took French, 1,700 German and 1,100 Spanish. Only 290 candidates took Italian.

Mr Dixon admitted problems caused by the "three science curriculum" and difficulties with languages in further and higher education but said that the picture was not as bad as some made out.

His more upbeat view was in stark contrast to many others. Alison Phipps, Glasgow University, said: "I have watched over the last 10 years of being in higher education the cohort of my students going from being mixed in terms of their background to being largely young women who are privately educated. It is has become highly elite."

Dick Johnstone, head of the Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research at Stirling University, said that there were "legitimate concerns" about the numbers going on to Higher compared with previous decades. There were also concerns about levels of proficiency and pupils' motivation, particularly that of boys.

Charles McAteer, vice-president of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland and headteacher of Dumfries Academy, described modern languages as being "in a pretty bad state" - in spite of the pound;18 million which has been put in by the Scottish Executive, There had been no moves to make languages compulsory in training for primary teachers and many primary teachers were not confident about that aspect, Mr McAteer said. Nationally, only 68 per cent of language-trained teachers were actually teaching foreign languages in 2003; in Dumfries and Galloway, one in three primary teachers who were involved had no training.

In secondary, modern languages were seen as difficult subjects by pupils, and parents questioned their value. Since universities did not require a language for entry, their value was not particularly high, Mr McAteer said.

Mike Doig, headteacher of Bearsden Academy, said: "How do we project languages in a school where it is not the strongest subject in the curriculum?"

Conference report 6; Leader, 20 Further reports next week

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