Scots speechless in Europe

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Neil Munro reports on a damning critique of modern language teaching in Glasgow

Modern language teaching is facing an almost terminal crisis in Glasgow, according to a shock report presented to councillors this week.

And, officials claim, the same problems persist in the rest of Scotland putting at risk the prospects of thousands of young people trying to compete in the European jobs market.

As the European Council of Education Ministers, including Scotland's, sat down this week in Luxembourg with modern languages near the top of their agenda, Glasgow's figures reveal that only 3 per cent of pupils take French after fourth year and only 1 per cent opt for German; the Scottish figures are 9 per cent and 3 per cent.

"This is a very serious situation and clearly we cannot go on as we are, " Malcolm Green, Glasgow's education convener, told the schools sub-committee on Tuesday.

Ken Corsar, the director of education, added: "This position does not support Glasgow's aspirations to be a European city of the 21st century."

In a devastating critique Mr Corsar says there is little continuity from primary modern language teaching into secondary, "no coherent grammatical coverage" in S1S2 textbooks, no structure to the Standard grade course, and an unacceptable gap between Standard grade and the Higher which puts a premium on writing.

His report criticises the absence of "language structures" in secondary modern language teaching with the result that pupils "amass a collection of nouns which they cannot use. Unfortunately this problem has developed also in primary foreign languages by extension".

Ian Boffey, the city's adviser in modern languages, also fears the subjects are at risk at senior levels as the Higher Still changes fail to insist on pupils having at least one other foreign language. He says no other European country offers a school leaving certificate which does not require at least communicative competence in a language other than the mother tongue.

National figures reveal a major falling away of interest in modern languages at the post-16 stages over the past 20 years. In 1975, 36 per cent of the age group were presented for a Higher modern language but this slumped to 12 per cent by 1996. This is despite the introduction in 1992 of a policy of "languages for all" up to the age of 16, and the start of modern languages in primaries 6 and 7 from 1993.

Mr Corsar's report lays part of the blame on mixed ability teaching in modern languages which he says bluntly has failed "despite the devotion of immense amounts of work, time and talent" over the past 25 years. Schools are in future to be allowed to move away from mixed-ability teaching if they wish, a major break with the past in Glasgow.

Schools are to be given new guidelines and advice on curriculum content and materials by the end of next session. The council is to guarantee that pupils who start a foreign language in P6 will be able to continue in it right through secondary school, although Mr Corsar accepts this could not be done without continuous primary staff retraining and extra cash.

The schools sub-committee also agreed to make a joint approach to the Secretary of State along with the local Chamber of Commerce to air their concerns. It will offer to research an alternative new system of teaching modern languages which will concentrate on an earlier start in primary school to encourage fluency and reduce "language unease" at secondary level.

Dr Green said the city's investigations, which drew on national HMI data as well as research commissioned from Glasgow University, convinced him that "this report could have been written about any education authority in Scotland".

His remarks were borne out by East Renfrewshire whose director of education, Eleanor Currie, told The TES Scotland of her council's concern that secondary school pupils were not achieving the quality of results in modern languages that might have been expected given that all 23 primaries were teaching modern languages in primaries 6 and 7.

HMI data reveals that 48 per cent of modern language departments in 1995-6 were rated as having serious deficiencies in their teaching of S1S2 classes, while 29 per cent were not doing well by S3S4 pupils. Inspectors criticised the often low volume of work in classes as well as poor pace and inadequate challenge. There was also little content in vocabulary and structure.

Pupils in S1, S3 and S5 told the Glasgow University researchers that learning French was only useful to "get by" during holidays, that pressure from other pupils was strongly against doing well in French, and that further language learning is pointless "since everyone speaks English".

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