Listen to the linguists

7th January 2000 at 00:00
HMI must take note of rising stress levels and workload fears over the extension of modern languages , says John Muir

LATE LAST term I completed a well-attended week-long "roadshow" around Highland with a representative from the curriculum council's Modern Languages Review and Development Group to introduce the revised 5-14 guidelines. She prepared an excellent introduction which reflected her expertise in modern languages as well as her knowledge and understanding of the concerns of primary and secondary teachers following publication of the Standards and Quality report.

Over five days we held conferences in different venues to allow all schools to participate. Supply cover was given to primary schools to enable class teachers to attend, rather than only non-class committed heads, and those who battle at the chalkface and who are at the forefront of change, were well represented.

Evaluation forms collated after the conferences indicated that teachers appreciated the opportunity to contribute to the discussion on the document. The plenary sessions at the end of each day were enlightening, not only in the detailed response to the content of the guidelines but more particularly in so far as teachers had a platform to express pent-up feelings about the direction of curriculum development in primary and secondary schools generally.

Without exception, class teachers expressed many concerns, which go far beyond the expectations of the revised guidelines. Views on the guidelines are being collated and no doubt the review and development group will take them on board.

As far as the review of modern languages was concerned, fears expressed included:

Will assessment mean "testing" of pupils?

Will primary teachers' knowledge be assessed (on HMI visits) after only 27 days' training?

What training will be given to allow them to address the many issues in the document related to the extension of skills and to attainment and target-setting?

Many "willing volunteers" on the Modern Languages in the Primary School programme who are enjoying it along with their pupils feel that a more formal approach will stifle this pleasure and they wondered if they could now opt out! Basically they are appreciating doing an area of the curriculum which is not involving them in detailed planning, assessment and record-keeping that has to be submitted for scrutiny.

Most challenging, however, was the general feeling on all of these days that yet another document was the last straw on top of the many other changes across the primary and secondary curricula. It was disconcerting for the local authority and curriculum council representatives tobe made aware in no uncertain terms that the class teacher does not trust the decisions makers from the Scottish Executive Education Department, HMI and the directorate downwards to take seriously their concerns on issues such as workload, assessment and target-setting.

Attempts to allay fears on the modern language issues were dismissed, at times scathingly, in the light of recent press comments (the Scotsman being the worst offender of late) on education generally, but more specifically because of the lack of support from HMI's inspectors, whom they see as the instigators and assessors of change.

Several modern linguists took the opportunity to underline their dismay at what they felt was the biased and unhelpful foreword to the Standards and Quality report by Douglas Osler, head of the Inspectorate, which many felt fuelled the press reaction.

The modern languages document has provided a platform for class teachers, not often consulted, to vent their spleens to anyone out there who will pay heed. At the end of the series of meetings those of us involved in their planning felt that these messages of concern were for a far wider audience than the Action Group on Languages. The group will, of course, have to take the views on the document into account but, teachers left us with a resounding note that has to catch the ear of many others, including the McCrone committee.

Class teachers want their views on "innovation fatigue" and a host of other workload issues to be heard. One teacher summed up the feeling of many when he said: "The 98 per cent rejection of the Millennium Review is only the beginning. Someone, somewhere must heed us if morale is not to decline further as stress mounts." He received a resounding round of applause from a large gathering of generally non-militant professionals.

As one with responsibility for aspects of Modern Languages in the Primary School I regret that the revised guidelines, a brave attempt to put structure to the subject for the 5-14 age-group, had to be the platform for such cross-

professional and cross-curricular concerns. There is so much goodwill out there (as attendances at gatherings indicate) for the success of modern languages in both primary and secondary schools.

The goodwill of teachers should be built on at the same time as their concerns are addressed. Remember that headteachers and their staffs have so many documents to give a view on - as well as modern languages, environmental studies this month and by March the consultation on 5-14 assessment.

John Muir is Modern Languages in the Primary School co-ordinator for Highland but writes in a personal capacity.

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