Liddell wants language targets
John Mulgrew, director of education in East Ayrshire, will lead a languages action group to work with the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum, concentrating particularly on the problems surrounding modern languages at the 5-14 stages which were lambasted in an unusually hard-hitting HMI report revealed by The TES Scotland last week.
The Government also plans to set specific attainment targets for modern languages in both primary and secondary schools.
"We obviously want to hear from HMI in talking to their report," Mr Mulgrew said. "But we also intend listening to teachers, and getting views from business and industry, before making what I hope will be significant recommendations.
"Our intention is to be supportive of teachers, particularly where more training, curricular materials and IT resources may be required."
Mr Mulgrew has not been given a time-scale for the group's work but remarks by the Education Minister make it clear the Government wants speedy action - and not only for educational reasons. Helen Liddell said at the official launch of the Standards and Quality report in Glasgow on Monday that the knock-on effect on the Scottish economy from monoglot exporters was a major reason for her concern.
Mrs Liddell said her priorities were "securing the place of modern languages within the 5-14 curriculum, improving the quality of modern languages at Standard grade and raising the appeal and standard of modern languages at Higher grade".
Mr Mulgrew said he was "not surprised" by HMI's findings, particularly poor primary-secondary liaison which was bedevilling efforts to teach pupils the same language from primary 6 to secondary 2.
The Scottish Association for Language Teaching's conference a week on Saturday will be asked to endorse a draft report that calls for a national strategy on modern languages, particularly the need to improve training for primary teachers and continuity in language learning between primary school and secondary.
Jane Renton, who chairs the association, said the 27-day training period for serving primary teachers was "excellent" but there was not enough post-training support and too few trained teachers.
Mrs Liddell appears to have recognised this shortcoming by announcing that guidelines on initial teacher training will be revised to underline the importance of modern languages. But there is no suggestion students will be compelled to take other languages.
Ms Renton, head of modern languages at the independent George Heriot's school in Edinburgh, criticised "some disastrous examples of senior secondary school managements making up classes in S1 with no reference at all to the language the pupils have been learning in primary".
Ian Boffey, modern languages adviser in Glasgow, said the city was addressing this issue but warned that greater continuity for pupils moving into secondary school may well be bought at the price of less diversification in languages, which would mean even more French.
Mr Boffey said: "The main problems are with the structures not the teaching. " Schools were forced to teach mixed-ability classes when setting would be more appropriate, and the unevenness in primary teaching was largely the result of the fact that training was voluntary, as is primary-secondary collaboration.
More time was needed in schools, he said. The average of 60 minutes a week in primary 6 and 90 minutes in primary 7 should be doubled to bring Scotland into line with other European countries. The two to three periods a week for modern languages in secondary should be expanded to four or five, which would give the subject "parity of esteem" with English and maths.
Ms Renton agreed that lack of time was a key issue, given what she regards as the "skills imbalance" at Standard grade where six speaking tests have to be administered for the exam. "That is quite an undertaking in a class of 30 or more and does not leave a lot of time for writing," she said.