Time for a new push on Europe?

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
As Britain assumes the EU presidency, David Henderson investigates language learning in primaries.

Like others in senior positions across the country John Stodter, director of education in Aberdeen, remains unconvinced about the success of foreign language learning in primary 6 and primary 7. "How much has it cost us and what are the outcomes? If you want to take it seriously you are looking at a different model of delivery," Mr Stodter says.

Teachers and pupils have responded enthusiastically but the long-term future of the current approach is in question. It is the second attempt in eight years to instill a feel for languages in young Scots and follows a pilot in which secondary specialists were "parachuted" into associated primaries. That exercise was deemed expensive, although it had many positive results.

Everyone agrees it makes sense to have class teachers teach French or German, yet fundamental questions remain. A study largely about secondary languages to be revealed later this year by Professor Dick Johnstone of Stirling University will influence the Government's approach. Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, is already committed to raising proficiency in languages and last October promised that "all children in Scottish primary schools will have the opportunity to start learning a foreign language".

By the end of the fifth phase of training in October, which will have cost Pounds 16 million in total, 3,750 teachers will have gone through the crash programme, yet there will still be schools where no class teacher is trained. There are also gaps when teachers move on to another school, a deficiency highlighted by most councils.

In its election manifesto, Labour promised to build foreign languages "into the heart of our early years curriculum" and Mr Wilson, a strong advocate of Gaelic in the early years, is likely to be equally receptive to French and German.

David Eastwood, assistant director of education in Aberdeen, concurs. "We have been too faint-hearted," Mr Eastwood says. "I believe we should be making serious efforts to introduce languages in P1 and P2 on a partial or total immersion basis. The evidence from Gaelic is very strong. Once you are bilingual, you find it much easier to deal with other language learning. "

Teachers, he says, have responded with "incredible enthusiasm" to the Government's training programme but an unintended consequence has been tension between primary and secondary. "There has been a preponderance of French in primaries and that has skewed efforts to try to diversify languages in S1 and S2," Mr Eastwood says.

Keir Bloomer, director of education in Clackmannan, echoes these remarks. "The model has worked better than the previous one but whether it can be sustained is difficult to say. It is still reliant on ad hoc programmes for serving teachers. Frankly, the programme will run into the sand unless the issue of initial teacher training is tackled," Mr Bloomer argues.

The Scottish Office has so far ducked placing foreign language learning in primary teachers' basic training. That may change if the training institutions can overcome charges of curriculum overload.

Kevin Gavin, director of education in Moray, shares the doubts. "There are fine words but the financial commitment and serious training issues have not yet been addressed. There is a serious issue about pre-service training and ongoing training when people move on," Mr Gavin says.

In Glasgow, Ian Boffey, a languages adviser, says around 65 per cent of schools are teaching foreign languages in the upper primary, with varying degrees of success. There are still not enough teachers trained and the time allocated, roughly an hour a week, is too low, Mr Boffey maintains. Visiting Germany last month, he was impressed by what he found. "Pupils start learning English at primary 6 but they have got five hours a week, or six periods a week. We are saying one hour a week."

Next door in East Renfrewshire, the education committee this week sanctioned a modern languages commission, led by Professor Johnstone, to investigate the difficulties with languages in primary and secondary. Ray Black, the council's quality development officer who was involved in Strathclyde days with the language pilots, accepted the excellence of the 27 day training programme for staff but added: "Are the teachers linguistically prepared for the job they have to do in school? And if we are putting time and money into foreign languages we have to show children have attained by the end of P7." Ms Black is looking to the commission to find out whether teachers can offer a "progressive and coherent" experience for children and if there is added value by the end of S2.

Languages fan, Rena Mitchell, president of the Association of Head Teachers in Scotland and head of Forth primary, South Lanarkshire, contends that "it is high time they added language teaching into initial training" and says that some children still enter the first year of secondary school with little or no language experience. There are also difficulties with composite classes when P5 and P6 classes are combined.

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