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Withering attack on 'timid'plan to rescue languages

THE ministerial action group on modern languages, due to report next month, is running away from fundamental issues and unlikely to produce any imaginative plan for reviving language teaching, Sandy Wilson, head of lifelong learning in Clackmannan and one of the country's sternest languages' critics, alleges.

Mr Wilson, former languages adviser in Strathclyde Region and influential in the education directors' association, savages the action group's outline recommendations as "disappointingly conservative" and claims they will merely reinforce the status quo.

He was responding to the little-noticed action group draft rationale placed on the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum's website last month. His council has now endorsed his view.

The action group was set up in 1998 to review language teaching and learning in primary and secondary after a scathing report by HMI. It is now scheduled to report to the Children and Education Minister before Easter.

Mr Wilson, however, dismantles most of the group's initial arguments, although he acknowledges there may be marginal gains following revisions to 5-14 and Standard grade. Numbers pursuing languages beyond 16 may increase slightly, but "four out of five Scottish pupils will leave school, having studied a foreign language for six years, with little to show for their efforts, or indeed the efforts of their teachers".

He states: "A rationale which, in spite of protestations to the contrary, is clearly rooted in conformity and in the status quo, with a nod in the direction of ICT, will not capture the imagination of the public, pupil or teachers. An opportunity has been wasted to start a new debate."

Mr Wilson says the group fails to address the key issue of when to start language learning. There is a strong case for switching language teaching to the early or later years, where short immersion courses may provide better results for senior pupils.

Mr Wilson believes the group has not tackled motivation, one of the principal reasons 90 per cent of pupils drop languages after S4 and why there are so many "reluctant conscripts" during the compulsory years. Young people abroad recognise they have to master English because of its global dominance but Scottish pupils know they do not have to learn another language to survive.

Internet and e-mail links with partners overseas will merely reinforce views that English is the dominant language while software packages will also convert spoken and written text into foreign languages.

The action group is also "misleading in the extreme" in suggesting school-leavers should have levels of linguistic competence to enable them to take a placement abroad. "This notion that schools can be in the business of enabling all pupils to develop a working command of a foreign language bears no relationship to the reality of what is experienced by the overwhelming majority of our school-leavers," Mr Wilson said.

John Mulgrew, the action group's chairman, has now asked Mr Wilson to meet it. "We are pleased that as part of our policy of openness we have received such a detailed piece of work and I thought it appropriate this should be presented to the action group," Mr Mulgrew said.

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