Uphill fight on languages

4th December 1998 at 00:00
Hard-hitting report sets out depth of crisis as schools are urged to tackle poor motivation, reports Neil Munro

MODERN LANGUAGE teaching is taking place in "a climate of negativity that may prove difficult to dispel", independent research for the Scottish Office suggests.

The results of the long-awaited study into the decline in modern language Highers were revealed today (Friday) by Dick Johnstone, head of the Institute of Education at Stirling University, which conducted the study with the Scottish Council for Research in Education.

In a presentation to the first meeting of the Education Minister's languages action group in Glasgow, Professor Johnstone identified lack of motivation as a key reason why pupils drop languages after Standard grade.

The action group was set up following ministerial concern over the conclusions of an HMI report which called for "significant improvements" in the standards and quality of modern language teaching.

The report says modern language teachers themselves may be partly to blame by not speaking up for their subject. "There was considerable evidence that modern languages are not marketed effectively either by modern languages departments, or more generally within schools.

"Students and their parents commented that the case for continuing to study a modern language to Higher needs to be made if students are to see this as relevant to their future education or career plans."

The researchers recommend that courses in third and fourth year should be overhauled to include more work-related and cultural elements. Links should also be established with other subjects such as computing, business studies and technology.

The report calls on guidance teachers to ensure pupils and their parents are brought more up to date with the value of modern languages, in Europe as well as in Scotland. This should include awareness of the changing pattern of modern language teaching in universities, where languages are increasingly linked to subjects such as business studies, accountancy and law.

The findings are based on a survey of staff and pupils in a quarter of Scotland's 400 secondary schools, backed by interviews with teachers, students and parents in 12 case-study secondaries.

The researchers found considerable criticism among Credit level pupils at Standard grade of a lack of cultural content and noted a "deep dislike" of rote learning and a lack of intellectual stimulus.

The report says such criticisms could be levelled by pupils at other courses. The more crucial factor is that students do not see the relevance of modern languages for getting a university place or a job.

Restrictions on subject choice made matters worse where schools forced able students to opt for either a language or a science, the study states.

Modern language departments which then prevent all but the most able from sitting Higher courses subsequently found themselves with very few students (the study reveals a 37 per cent swing away from support among principal modern language teachers for the "languages for all" policy, which makes a modern language compulsory for pupils of all abilities up to S4).

The report calls for a national review of what pupils should be able to achieve after 400 hours of compulsory language learning, from P6 to S4. It suggests many pupils believe they should be able to communicate fluently with foreigners and, when they are unable to to do so, inevitably recall their time in the modern language class as "tedious, frustrating and ultimately pointless".

A review should establish more realistic expectations, the report states, which should then be widely publicised so that parents and pupils have a clearer idea of the value, and limitations, of a Standard grade qualification.


The membership of the languages action group is: John Mulgrew, East Ayrshire's director of education (chairman); Mike Baughan, chief executive of the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum; Ron Tuck, chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority; Donald Urquhart, vice-president of the Scottish School Board Association; Jane Renton, head of modern languages at George Heriot's School and chair of the Scottish Association for Language Teaching; Claire Gemmell, head of Dalgety Bay primary; Mike Doig, head of Cumbernauld High; Kenny Lynn, development manager, IBM Greenock; Kathy Fairweather, chief inspector of schools; Stuart MacDonald, head of curriculum division, Scottish Office; David Stewart, head of skills and qualifications division, Scottish Office. A business representative has still to be appointed.


The decline in the uptake of modern languages after they cease to be compulsory at age 16 is still "significant", even after allowance is made for the changing nature of the age-group and of the curriculum.

The figures show that the number of fifth-year pupils taking a modern languages Higher has halved over 20 years from 11,313 in 1976 to 5,966 in 1996.

The report acknowledges that modern languages are now in competition with many more Higher courses than was the case in the 1970s.

But the uncomfortable fact remains that 42 per cent of those who sat Higher English, the most widely studied subject, also took a Higher in a modern language in 1976. The proportion had fallen to 26 per cent by 1996.

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