Translate concern into real policy change

It is not poor teaching that is turning pupils from languages, but a system in need of a rethink, says Keir Bloomer

THE INSPECTORATE'S recent modern languages report raises more questions than it answers. Of course, its main conclusion is not open to serious doubt. Levels of achievement in modern languages are profoundly unsatisfactory. The uptake of the subject beyond S4 is abysmally low and declining. If we really believe that success in modern languages by a significant proportion of young people is an important objective, far-reaching changes will have to be made.

Why is modern language teaching in this state of crisis? The only answer touched on in the report has to do with the quality of teaching. Even judged in its own terms, this is a strange conclusion. Teaching standards may, as the report suggests, be declining in S1 to S4. However, they are still considered "good" or "very good" in 85 per cent of schools. More than 80 per cent of modern language departments have apparently created a positive ethos and good relationships with pupils. These statistics hardly suggest that the full explanation of the present disastrous failure lies at the door of teachers.

After all, as the report points out, modern languages has been the subject of three major initiatives in recent years. Modern languages in primary schools, diversification and "languages for all" up to the end of S4 are not teacher-led ventures but the response of Scottish Office agencies (including the Inspectorate) to political demands.

What we have seen is a failure of policy far more than a failure in implementation. Perhaps the inspectorate feels that such matters are beyond the scope of its report which is primarily about learning and teaching. However, it is a mistake not to consider broader questions because a climate in which teachers feel they are being blamed for policy failures is not one which is conducive to discussing what should now be done.

The decision to set up a task group is a sensible one, provided it begins by asking the big questions. Why is it difficult to teach foreign languages in British schools? Why do we think it worth the effort?

The first question is relatively easy. The international dominance of English grows stronger by the year. The incentive offered to non-English speakers to acquire the language is enormous. For British children, the arguments apply in reverse. An effective strategy for modern languages teaching has to begin from acknowledging this fact and proceed by considering its implications for how, when and to whom languages should be taught and, above all, why.

This brings us to the second, and more difficult question. When the report came out, the minister told us that the purpose of modern languages was not so that young people could order a San Miguel on holiday. I suspect the purpose isn't the one that my French teacher supplied 30-odd years ago either. If he still believes that it is about the joys of reading Flaubert in the original, I have a shameful confession to make: I don't.

Of course, the political reason for teaching modern languages - the reason supplied by the last Government when it aspired to create six years of compulsory modern languages from P6 to S4 - is an economic one. It has to do with our place in Europe, trade and international competitiveness.

The ability to speak a foreign language can certainly make an important contribution to business effectiveness. However, to draw from this the conclusion that all children should study a modern European language for six years in early adolescence is absurd. The level of competence reached by the end of S4 when 95 per cent abandon the study is quite insufficient to make any contribution to any employment. Even where the pupil continues into S5 and S6, the commercial value of a good pass in Higher French to a company which trades with the Far East will prove, at best, limited.

I do not mean to suggest that schools have no part to play in improving our language competence. Schools must develop international awareness among pupils. They should have a concept of their own identity in an interdependent world; an understanding of similarities and differences. Language is so fundamental to culture that it is difficult to convey the notion of cultural differences without some appreciation of language. Furthermore, some knowledge of another language is useful in understanding how it - and, therefore, thoughts - work. A positive experience of successful language learning helps to convince the learner of hisher ability to progress, perhaps in another language, at a later date: it should also develop transferable skills.

The key words are "positive experience" and "success". Unsuccessful programmes offer nothing but wasted time and resources and the prospect of disaffection. What ought to emerge from the report, therefore, is that there is little merit in enjoining staff to pursue discredited policies more energetically. New approaches are needed and they must take account not only of globalisation but of native English speakers' needs. It would be unfair to expect the recent report to come up with answers. But it should have recognised the need for change and debate.

There are radical options which need to be considered. Gaelic-medium schools, relying on immersion from an early age, suggest one model. The growing importance attached to summer schools where intensive immersion could be offered at a much later stage suggests another possibility. The growing technological possibilities of the Internet and the rapid development of distance learning may offer a third option.

These are no more than half-formed notions but they are the kind of ideas which the new task group should explore. What is clearly not an option is more of the same - a negative classroom experience for the majority, success for a declining few and more criticism for the poor infantry.

Keir Bloomer is director of education for Clackmannan Council.

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