Teaching this way? C'est impossible
Teachers are being asked "to do the impossible" in foreign language lessons, a leading figure has warned.
Dr Dan Tierney, a former chair of the Scottish Association for Language Teaching (Salt) who is now responsible for training French, Italian, German and Spanish teachers at the University of Strathclyde, said that modern teaching methods - such as collaborative learning and increased use of technology - could not work with current class sizes.
At Salt's annual conference in Glasgow earlier this month, Dr Tierney explained that there was a "mismatch between methods, policy and large class sizes", adding: "We have new methods we are expected to do but old class sizes. We are being asked to do the impossible."
One solution would be to bring back modern language assistants, he said. "Either we need smaller class sizes or we need assistants to help us do what we are being asked to do."
Dr Tierney also said that challenges remained around motivating students to study languages and teachers were being "let down by government". In other countries, foreign languages were a prerequisite for getting into university, which should also be the case in Scotland, he said. Uptake of languages such as German and French at Higher level has fallen in recent years.
The government's 1+2 language strategy, which is being rolled out across the country, was also criticised by Dr Tierney. The scheme, which will involve children learning a foreign language from P1 and a second language from no later than P5, was announced by languages minister Alasdair Allan in 2012. However, teachers and parent groups have raised concerns over inconsistent approaches and insufficient funding.
A number of languages can be chosen as part of 1+2 to ensure continuity from primary to secondary. But Dr Tierney said this flexibility was also a weakness. "The 1+2 report is fundamentally flawed, I don't think it could work. But there are other models that could work."
He suggested offering the same set of languages across the country, for example French from P1 and then Spanish or German. Scotland already had many German and French teachers who could help to deliver this, he added.
A number of other factors favoured the European languages, Dr Tierney argued, including research by the British Council showing that studying German, French or Spanish was most beneficial to young people's employment prospects.
For the 1+2 strategy to work, a national plan with objectives and clearly identified needs had to be decided, followed by a coordinated training programme for teachers, Dr Tierney said.
Gillian Campbell-Thow, chair of Salt, said that class sizes were a wider problem, but that language teaching was a practical subject and "that is really hard when you have a class of 33". The rise in multi-level teaching to make classes viable was a particular challenge, she added.
Ms Campbell-Thow was part of the 1+2 strategy group and therefore feels passionately about the scheme. "There is a real need for joined-up thinking, particularly at crucial transition points," she said. "Training for staff, especially at primary, is also really key."
A Scottish government spokesman said that 1+2 was "a long-term policy and is one which we are committed to delivering". Its implementation would allow local authorities to review the contribution language assistants could make, he added.
"We will continue to fund British Council Scotland to promote the value and take-up of language assistants in Scotland's schools, as it can be an effective way to support teachers and bring languages to life," the spokesman said.
European languages would continue to have an important place in Scottish education, he stressed, while "new economies of the future may also be taken into account". He added: "Admissions policy in higher education institutions is a matter for the institutions themselves as autonomous bodies."