Sideline modern languages at your peril, HMIE chief warns secondaries

4th June 2010 at 01:00
Personalisation of the curriculum should not lead to any subject becoming optional, Bill Maxwell tells headteachers

Secondary schools that fail to make modern languages a core part of S1-3 will incur the wrath of HMIE, the new head of the inspectorate has warned.

Bill Maxwell, senior chief inspector, told The TESS that some schools were trying to sideline modern languages in the first three years of secondary education.

"Some schools are mistakenly making the study of modern languages optional, saying they want to reinforce the idea of personalisation of the curriculum," he said. "That should not be done at the expense of providing a broad general education and we see modern languages as part of that."

HMIE would be critical of schools which did not ensure that all pupils had that entitlement in the first phase of secondary, he warned.

Modern languages need to be "fully there" for pupils up to Level 3 and for many up to Level 4, he continued. Even pupils with learning difficulties were entitled to a modern languages experience, said Mr Maxwell, whose educational expertise before entering the inspectorate was in special educational needs.

"Don't plan to exclude significant numbers of pupils from modern languages," he warned secondary heads.

Speaking at a national conference on modern languages last week, Mr Maxwell said inspectors had seen many teachers and departments grasping the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues and increase their professionalism.

But he bemoaned the low numbers of final entries for the Scottish languages baccalaureate - 29 from 15 centres - and both the high level of withdrawals and the dominance of the independent sector.

If the focus was being shifted down to the teaching of languages in primary schools, secondary modern languages departments needed to know what was being taught and how it was being taught in primary.

"Young people starting languages in P6 and building on those skills in secondary should have higher levels of proficiency in S3 than was previously happening. We need to see that more widely," said Mr Maxwell.

Where once nearly all P6-7s were being taught a modern language, HMIE was coming across a "worrying" number of cases where none was being taught, because there was no one in the primary school trained to teach them, he added.

Duncan Ferguson, headteacher of Plockton High, which offers both Gaelic and French as core subjects in S1-3, said it was important that the Education Secretary clarify the future of languages in early secondary. Despite his clear support for languages, Michael Russell had not yet made clear whether they were optional or core in S1-3, he claimed.

Eddie Muir, head of Kirkintilloch High, also called for a stronger steer from central government.

"School leaders have a major role to play, and there could be quite a few variations in practice across the country unless we get a strong steer from the people in power," he said.

The head of John Ogilvie High in Hamilton, Eddie Morrison, said that, as far as he was concerned, languages would remain in the curriculum until the end of S3.

"But I have said to my modern languages department that we have to increasingly justify our position as a core subject," he said. "We can't take it for granted. If we want to remain in the core, we have to make children want to be there."

Mr Morrison added that language teaching in primary was still too piecemeal. His own school, which was nominated recently by the Spanish Consulate as Spanish School of the Year, found it "extremely unpredictable from one year to the next and one school to the next" just how well prepared pupils were when they arrived in S1.

"I would go back to flagging up modern languages as an entrance qualification to primary teaching," he said. "That would send out the message - that languages are not negotiable. Otherwise, it's `fingers in the dyke' time."

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