Poor language skills put Scots at disadvantage

25th March 2011 at 00:00
Early opt-outs and removal of foreign assistants fuel rapid decline of languages, TESS survey reveals

There has never been a more perilous time for modern languages in our schools.

So says Eddie Morrison, headteacher of John Ogilvie High in South Lanarkshire, whose commitment to languages makes him the exception, rather than the rule.

Some heads are counting the hours that pupils are taught a modern language in primary, and once they are sure their 500-hour entitlement is met, are "dropping it like a hot tortilla", he says.

A survey of councils by TESS bears this out. It shows that more than half of Scottish local authorities - 18 out of 31 councils (Falkirk Council did not respond) - have at least one secondary where modern languages will not be compulsory from S1-3.

This flies in the face of HMIE's explicit warning last year that schools failing to make languages part of the core curriculum in S1-3 would incur the inspectorate's wrath (TESS, 4 June 2010).

Senior chief inspector Bill Maxwell set out HMIE's position: "We would expect all secondary schools to be planning for a modern foreign language being a core element of the broad general education delivered routinely to all pupils in S1-S3."

But in Edinburgh modern foreign languages are only compulsory in S1. And in a raft of other authorities - North Ayrshire, Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire, Glasgow and Orkney - languages are compulsory for the first two years of secondary, but not in S3.

Whether pupils are compelled to continue with languages until S3, therefore, is often left up to headteachers, with the picture varying widely from one school to the next (see panel).

It is a point picked up by the Modern Languages Excellence Group, which stated this month: "Schools have to ensure that modern languages remain part of the broad general education, through supportive timetabling which allows all pupils to have the opportunity to experience the modern languages experiences and outcomes at the third level. To do this, most learners will need a solid base and appropriate gradient of progression from P6 (at the latest) to the end of S3."

A second survey by TESS reveals that two-thirds of Scottish councils (22 out of 32 authorities) have scrapped European foreign language assistants.

Most councils blame tight budgets for their decision, but even the authorities that have stopped employing FLAs admit they are a valuable asset, particularly for helping senior students improve their oral communication. More generally, they provide all youngsters with an invaluable insight into the culture of their native countries.

The Scottish Government says it "expects" schools to ensure that "all learners experience high-quality modern languages education at least to the third level of the curriculum" (S1-3).

To believe that can be done by the end of S1 or even the end of S2, is "pie in the sky", says Sarah Breslin, director of SCILT, Scotland's national centre for languages at Strathclyde University.

"Pupils are entitled to a broad general education and they can't get that if they opt out of languages at the end of S1," she says

Only last week, the Scottish Parliament's European and external relations committee published a report calling on the Government to put more emphasis on developing a "culture of internationalisation" among Scots. Its convener, Irene Oldfather, said: "We were concerned about the poor linguistic performance of the Scottish population compared with much of Europe."

In September, the Government-backed "Smart Exporter" initiative was launched with promises to get more businesses "accessing international markets".

But business consultant Ian Watson, writing in the Scottish Languages Review, questions whether it is understood in Scotland that we will need languages to attract customers, interest them in our products and services and awaken their desire to purchase.

It is a problem with which Steve Chambers, director of Neogen Europe in Ayr, is all too familiar.

His company, which specialises in food safety products, employs 72 people, is growing by 25 per cent each year, and is export-driven, with 70 per cent of sales taking place outside the UK. He needs life sciences graduates with language skills in French, German or Dutch. But in Scotland, finding candidates who fit the bill is virtually impossible and the company tends to recruit from abroad.

The company could rely on English to do business, but not if it wants to be successful, says Mr Chambers.

"Language skills are crucial if you want to build closer relationships and show how serious you are."

Because of their language skills, German youngsters have a clear advantage over Scots, says Wolfgang Mossinger, the German Consul General in Scotland.

If the decline of German in Scotland continues, in 20 years there will be hardly anyone left able to speak the language or teach it, even though Germany is Scotland's second-largest trading partner after America, he says.


- Language provision in S1-3 varies widely from one school to the next

Many councils only compel schools to offer languages up to S1 or S2, leaving it to headteachers' discretion whether all or just some pupils continue on to S3.

In Stirling, languages are compulsory in S1 but thereafter the picture varies; at Balfron High, pupils are expected to study languages from S1-3, but at Wallace High, pupils can opt out after S1.

In Perth and Kinross, every pupil takes a modern language in S1; in S2 just one school has failed to make languages compulsory. However, by S3 half of the council's secondaries move away from languages as a core part of the curriculum.

In Aberdeen, 10 out of the authority's 12 secondaries make languages compulsory in S1-3. In West Dunbartonshire, languages are taught in every secondary until the end of S2, but in two out of five secondaries pupils can opt out in S3.

In Aberdeenshire, Angus, Dundee, East Ayrshire, East Dunbartonshire, East Lothian, Fife, Highland, Inverclyde, Borders, South Lanarkshire, West Lothian and the Western Isles languages are compulsory in S1-3.


EUROPEAN FLAS CUT: Aberdeen City, Clackmannanshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Dundee City, East Ayrshire, East Dunbartonshire, East Lothian, Fife, Glasgow City, Highland, Midlothian, Moray, North Ayrshire (but has one Chinese FLA), North Lanarkshire (but has one Chinese FLA), Scottish Borders, Renfrewshire, Shetland, South Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire, Stirling, West Lothian, Western Isles

FLAS STILL EMPLOYED: Aberdeenshire, Angus, Argyll and Bute, East Renfrewshire, Edinburgh, Falkirk, Inverclyde, Orkney, Perth and Kinross, West Dunbartonshire

Glasgow City Council was the most recent to make the cut in its education budget in February. It employed 35 FLAs, but cutting them will save pound;300,000.

Aberdeen and Moray have targeted FLAs as part of tough budget savings.

In South Lanarkshire, FLAs stopped working in schools in 2009, saving the council pound;70,000 per year; North Lanarkshire has a Chinese FLA but European assistants were cut last year, saving pound;150,000; North Ayrshire has a Chinese assistant but cut European assistants last year to save pound;100,000; in East Ayrshire, pound;80,000 was saved by axing the posts in 2009.

Perth and Kinross and Falkirk have language assistants but at a minimal level: there were just two working in Perth and Kinross - down from 10 a few years ago - and one in Falkirk.

Related article: Relevance is the key to a revival of modern languages

Original headline: Poor language skills put young Scots at a disadvantage


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