Will 1+2 prove to be more than the sum of its parts?

22nd November 2013 at 00:00

Raw statistics suggest that things are not going well for languages in Scottish schools. Take-up in Higher French fell by 10 per cent this year, the rise in Spanish has been more than counterbalanced by German's seemingly terminal decline, and the supposed language of the future, Mandarin, attracts tiny numbers at exam levels.

And languages will have to fight even harder for their place at the exam table if, as expected, the new National qualifications result in many students taking fewer subjects than under Standard grade.

Despite the stats, the mood was upbeat at a conference last week in Stirling on the mightily ambitious national "1+2" approach (see pages 7-8). Its headline aim is that, by 2020, every child in Scotland should have mastered the basics of two additional languages by the time they leave primary school.

Early signs from pilot projects are encouraging, with primary children confidently switching between languages. But the big challenge in primary schools is clear: training opportunities must grow until languages permeate each classroom, rather than rest on the rickety foundations of lone, enthusiastic teachers.

At secondary level, even more fundamental attitude shifts are necessary. Rightly or wrongly, languages have often been perceived as arid, scholarly subjects. And it's all very well talking up cognitive and academic benefits, but many young people fail to see the point of learning other languages when English bestrides the world.

The conference showed ways forward. The new "languages for life and work award" focuses on practical skills to draw in students who, in the past, would have dismissed languages as pointless. And why not get students rapping in another language, as one school did? "Engaging pedagogy wins hearts and minds," as Education Scotland languages specialist Fiona Pate put it.

Funding will be crucial, so Glasgow education director Maureen McKenna spoke for 100-plus delegates when she expressed joy that #163;4 million, shared among councils this year for 1+2 implementation, looked likely to be matched for another two years.

Much will also come down to offering the right languages - and that won't be the same everywhere. Shetland students have spoken effusively about how Norwegian might help them to break into the North Sea oil industry. But it is worrying that German, which Scots find easier to pronounce than French or Spanish, is withering on the vine. And questions will have to be asked if Chinese language qualifications remain confined to a small number of predominantly independent schools.

Encouraging though the early signs are, it is too early to predict the success of 1+2. For now, languages in Scottish schools are like Neil Kinnock's Labour before the 1992 general election - however many times people say "We're all right", it means nothing until the numbers back it up.

henry.hepburn@tess.co.uk.

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