Where have all the modern language assistants gone?

24th August 2018 at 00:00
Sharp drop in numbers is blamed on local authorities failing to allocate funds for such posts, as figures show independent schools are bucking the trend

The number of modern language assistants in Scotland has taken another tumble this year, Tes Scotland can reveal.

New figures also show that employing MLAs – native speakers who typically spend a year working in Scottish classrooms – is increasingly the preserve of independent schools, with nearly half based in that sector, including all of Edinburgh’s contingent of 18.

Data from the British Council, which arranges for MLAs to work in Scotland, reveals that there are only 61 MLAs, 27 of whom are based in independent schools. This is the lowest figure since current records began in 2003: the next lowest was 72 in 2013-14 and the current number is less than a quarter of the 2005-06 high point of 278. The number of local authorities with MLAs is also falling, from 15 (out of 32) in 2017 to 13 in 2018.

From a recent high of 146 MLAs in Scotland in 2016-17, numbers fell sharply to 80 in 2017-18 – including 23 based in independent schools – with some fearing that this was related to the 2016 vote to leave the EU (“Brexit blamed as language assistant numbers dive”, Tes Scotland, 17 November 2017).

The British Council, however, has played down any suggestion that Brexit has had an impact. Liz Neil, acting head of education for British Council Scotland, says: “The reduction in the number of modern language assistants in Scotland is disappointing and we are working with stakeholders to explore options for addressing the issue – for example, by getting more placements in primary schools where the impact on primary learners can be significant.”

Primary priorities

Neil adds: “On a positive note, we are pleased to report that 356 people from Scotland will be going abroad this year to work as English language assistants in schools all over the world.”

Until the decline in MLA numbers that started last year, an upsurge in their ranks had been credited to funding for Scotland’s “1+2” policy, which envisages all pupils leaving primary school with a knowledge of two additional languages.

In response to the new MLA figures, however, Fhiona Mackay, director of Scilt, Scotland’s National Centre for Languages, says: “I don’t have strong evidence for this, but my feeling is that local authorities are choosing to spend their 1+2 budget on capacity-building activities that develop their own workforce, rather than ‘buying in’ the expertise of MLAs to help deliver languages in primary schools.

“This may well be the reason for the decline, rather than attributing it to the current political climate caused by Brexit.”

Mackay says there is evidence that schools are finding other ways to bring native speakers into the classroom, such as using helpers with a first language other than English or through the German Educational Trainees programme, which is co-funded by participating local authorities and the European Commission’s Erasmus+ scheme.

Mackay adds: “Having said all that, the MLA programme is a really good one and we don’t want to see it decline. An MLA can bring a fresh, youthful presence into the classroom and, when used wisely, can offer a very motivational resource to teachers in both primary and secondary schools.”

Andrea Bradley, assistant secretary at the EIS teaching union, says that MLAs give “life to foreign languages, and greater relevance and richness to young people’s learning”.

She adds: “Any diminution in the quality of language learning in Scotland as a result of dwindling numbers of language assistants, whether this be down to Brexit or budget cuts, is a matter of real concern.” Bradley is also worried that the new figures point to “yet more inequity between private and state schools in terms of access to and benefit from valuable learning resources”.


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