Is it time for a rethink on language education in primary school?
As an English-speaking country, modern languages struggle to get the place they deserve in Scotland’s education system. The introduction of languages in primary schools was a genuine effort to turn that situation around. But despite good intentions, twenty years on that system is not delivering. As provision of languages in primary schools grows increasingly patchy, the case for reform is gaining momentum.
Dr Daniel Tierney, a reader in language education at Strathclyde University and author of a recent study on language provision in primary schools, sets out the problem: “Scotland has invested quite a lot of money in introducing languages into primary school but it’s a question of whether that’s going to work or not because there are quite a lot of issues still to be sorted. We’re losing teachers. There are some problems in terms of continuity into secondary. There’s a problem in the variation of time allocated to it.” The arguments for an early start in languages are persuasive. Advocates say it develops children’s language skills, linguistic awareness and their understanding of other cultures. With these educational, economic and cultural rewards in mind, modern languages were introduced to some primary schools at P6 and P7 in 1989 and rolled out to all in 1993. In 2001 the Mulgrew Report, commissioned by the Scottish Executive, recommended an entitlement of 75 minutes per week for languages in primary. Tierney’s study found, however, that three quarters of primaries are missing that target while some have dropped languages altogether.
“Some schools are getting it every week for 30 minutes, some schools are doing it for 90 minutes, some schools are doing it some weeks of the year but not every week of the year because they’ve got a school show on or they’ve got a trip to York or whatever,” he says.
“Some schools have discontinued it so you’ve got some where it’s not being done.” This patchwork of provision creates a discontinuity in language education, Tierney adds, as pupils arrive at secondary with completely different levels of proficiency in different languages. To overcome that disjuncture, he believes primaries should take a broader approach to languages. Rather than focusing on content, language teaching in P6 and P7 should focus on transferable linguistic skills like phonics, pronunciation and dictionary skills, he argues.
Many, though, believe the bigger problem lies at source, with teachers. Schools simply do not have sufficient skills to teach languages.
Many of the teachers trained for languages in primary in the early ‘90s have left the profession or moved on. Meanwhile new primary teachers are entering schools with widely varying abilities in modern languages.
Language provision in primary teacher training courses diverges from students being able to study languages to degree level alongside their teaching qualification, to languages not even forming part of the core curriculum.
The only way to crack this disparity is to make modern languages a compulsory part of all initial teacher education, contends a group of 13 councils, the East of Scotland European Consortium.
“One of the main barriers that we found in terms of teaching modern languages to younger audiences was the lack of any sustainable supply of adequately trained modern language teachers,” says Jonathan Robertson of the consortium.
Councils’ ability to offer languages training to primary teachers is constrained by the fact that many don’t have even a foundation in the language, according to Robertson. “There’s a complete absence of any coordinated teacher training structure and that has a direct impact on local authorities’ own capacity to offer Continuing Professional Development because in essence it’s not continuing – you’re having to start from scratch, offering basic foundation courses because there’s been no adequate form of foundation training offered in initial teacher education,” he says.
This lack of basic language skills also prevents councils from tapping into EU training funds, he argues: “Local authorities have got an opportunity to tap into a lot of EU funding in order to offer in-service training courses; there’s no need for it to come out of local authority budgets per se. But the lack of teacher confidence and the lack of foundation training are barriers to this.” But with languages set to be a core part of the primary curriculum under the Curriculum for Excellence experiences and outcomes, the consortium believes there is no grey area. Teacher training courses should only be approved and accredited if they include languages as a core part of the degree. Under the ‘Guidelines for Approving Initial Teacher Education’, new teachers must be able to deliver the full curriculum, Robertson says, so any course that does not incorporate languages does not comply with those guidelines.
“We’ve been seeking confirmation from the Government regarding this issue because it would seem that if you’re going to make a subject a core part of the primary curriculum, you should first put in place the appropriate measures via teacher training. It seems the curriculum has perhaps got ahead of itself by making modern languages a core part when there’s no form of compulsory or adequate training to deliver modern languages in primary school via initial teacher education,” he says.
The Scottish Government and the General Teaching Council Scotland (GTCS) accept that languages provision in primary needs attention. Graham Donaldson has confirmed to Holyrood that he is considering the issue as part of his ongoing review of teacher training. However, no simple solution awaits, warns Tony Finn, Chief Executive of the GTCS.
“When we accredit courses of initial teacher education, we do so against standards that have been laid down by the Scottish Government and at the moment there is no formal requirement for primary teachers to have a competency in a language,” says Finn.
“Although we accept that there is a case for looking at these issues more fully, this is a complex problem for which there is no easy, short-term solution.
“If, for example, language training were made a mandatory part of initial teacher education courses, everyone entering a primary teaching course might require to have already attained a qualification in a language. Currently, this would mean that we would require excluding a large number of people who would make very good teachers but who have not continued their modern language study in school.
“Similarly, many of those entering primary teaching from the postgraduate PGDE course might not have a background in languages. We need a balance of skills in primary classrooms and would be reluctant to exclude someone with, for example, a good maths degree but who didn’t have a Higher in French.” One solution, Tierney suggests, might be to offer a specialist route for those primary teachers that want to pursue languages through a combined teaching and language degree – a system that already operates in Spain.
Despite progress over the last two decades, language education in Scotland is far from coherent. As a new curriculum comes on stream it is time for clarity. If modern language learning is a priority it must be treated as such, beginning with the skills of the teachers tasked with delivering it. The answer might not be clear cut but with a teacher training review ongoing, there is an ideal forum for figuring it out.