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The way forward on languages

Typically in the bit-by-bit planning of Scottish education, there is enthusiasm for widening the scope of the primary languages programme so that it embraces all pupils but also denunciation of language teaching at Standard grade where it is compulsory. Recently there has been publicity about the poor uptake of languages at Higher level. Our survey (pages one and four) shows that problems start early and continue throughout the school.

Primary teachers who have been through the 27-day training programme show skill and imagination in introducing pupils to a foreign language even although their own command remains slight. In the best classrooms, standards of listening and speaking are at least as good as some pupils achieve after a couple of years with a specialist teacher in early secondary. But the patchiness of provision cannot continue if the Government is serious about its aspirations.

Some schools have no teacher with in-service experience, others lose a language when a teacher leaves. Pupils start a language (other than French) only to find their secondary does not teach it. Until pre-service training includes a language, provision will remain make do and mend. Unless the 5-14 guidelines are extended to demand time for language teaching, it is bound to be treated as an add-on. Yet at a time when the national curriculum south of the border is being slimmed down, it is unlikely that ministers here will put further pressure on the 5-14 timetable.

The muddled thinking extends into secondary. Standard grades do not motivate enough abler pupils. In part that must be because without grammar the only facility can be with set words and phrases. The change of emphasis needed for Higher puts a strain on all but most adept learners. Making the transition from basic communicative skills (which start in primary and are much better taught than in the old days) to grammar and vocabulary has not been widely achieved.

Yet in both primaries and secondaries there are pockets of excellent practice. The expertise already exists here to match Government aspirations. Making it the norm is the challenge.

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