In the middle of the last century, Scottish educators had a global reputation for delivering some of the finest language teaching available, and had a hand in the development of immersion language teaching curricula across the English-speaking world. Simon Macaulay could himself be considered a product of that golden age in Scottish language teaching, having learned Latin, Gaelic, German and French at school, before continuing his studies in the latter at university. Moreover, illustrating the argument that a sound foundation in languages from an early age begets later confidence in further learning, Macaulay is only now learning Chinese, despite having just officially retired after 28 years working at the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), latterly as Assistant Secretary for Education, Equalities and Communications.
His contention, however, is that decades on, Scottish education isn’t giving students the same start in language learning that he had – and that it’s costing the country dearly. “The situation at the moment is that not enough young people are learning languages,” he says. “If Scotland is going to be a prosperous, outward-looking country of the future, then it’s essential that young Scots do learn additional languages.” The report of the Modern Languages Working Group, chaired by Macaulay and set up by Learning Minister Alasdair Allan to chart a course towards the delivery of the SNP’s 2011 manifesto pledge to have all Scottish young people learn two languages in addition to their mother tongue, was published last month, citing research claiming that a lack of language skills costs the Scottish economy £500m a year – to say nothing of the lost cultural and social benefits.
“In recent years there has been a decline in the number of pupils taking languages forward to SQA certificate level. The only language which is rising a little bit is Spanish. There’s a slow decline in French, there’s a marked decline in German, and in other languages there’s a mixed picture, but little sign of real increase. But before you can do that, you really have to win hearts and minds, encourage young Scots, their parents, and indeed their teachers, to learn additional languages,” Macaulay says.
He blames a constant retreat in that hearts and minds battle for the steady decline in language skills. “There’s a perception that it is sufficient to be able to speak English, but the reality is that 75 per cent of the world’s population don’t speak English, and only six per cent of the world’s population speak English as their mother tongue.” Effecting a turnaround in perceptions will be particularly important in young people from deprived communities, where the idea that their future could involve working with clients from the likes of China or Brazil seems even more distant.
“There is an equality agenda that’s very much part of this, that all young people should have the opportunity to learn languages. That’s true not just for those that are going to be the linguists, that are going to study languages at university or be the captains of industry; young people, wherever they come from, are going to be engaging through employment or travel with people from abroad, not only through travelling abroad but through people coming to Scotland, for example, in the tourism industry. Learning languages is for everybody.” The most radical proposal contained in the report is the suggestion – already endorsed by Allan in his initial response – to have pupils learn a first additional language in primary one, much earlier than currently called for at primary six. “The important thing is to engage with children at a very early age,” says Macaulay.
“There is a tremendous amount of good practice in schools already. There are different ways of doing it, but what you must have are imaginative ways, ways that grab the attention of young people so that it’s interesting, it’s fun, and it’s something that they are engaged with from the beginning, and continue to engage with from primary and into secondary school.” With a few schools already pushing language teaching beyond the minimum requirements, implementing 1 + 2 won’t demand the reinvention of the wheel. “I’ve seen, and the group has seen, a lot of innovative practice around the teaching of Chinese, including in some nursery schools; there’s some very innovative practice in relation to teaching French that we’ve seen in some primary schools; and we visited a school in Glasgow last week where there are four European languages being taught in the primary school.” The first phase of implementation, which the report says should start as early as the new school year in September, will see pilot programmes developing that best practice further. Macaulay suggests that may include adopting some of the immersion principles of Gaelic Medium Education already being practised.
While not wanting to create a proscriptive list of languages to be taught under the new system, Macaulay says the working group was nonetheless eager to enshrine a focus on employability within the report, making explicit in their recommendations the need to teach languages that were relevant to the world young people would enter upon leaving education. The languages of the BRIC countries – Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Portuguese – are therefore mentioned, as are the native languages of Scotland’s ‘new’ communities which, recent population figures from the National Records of Scotland demonstrate, remain significant drivers of the country’s population growth. “The report seeks to reflect the realities of Scotland now, and the realities of Scotland in the future. [That means] sending out strong messages to those communities that if we’re serious about [our] mother tongue plus two additional languages, then for a very large number of Scots [their mother tongue] is not English but is one of the community languages.” Macaulay readily acknowledges that the 1 + 2 policy – and the report’s recommendations – are ambitious. “It is very much looking to the future. There’s not going to be an overnight transformation; the plan is to introduce this policy over the course of the period of two parliaments. That effectively allows for eight years. That’s not eight years when nothing will happen.” Indeed, action will need to be rapid and robust; the infrastructure of language teaching in Scotland has never been in a worse state.
Teacher numbers have fallen every year since the SNP took power in 2007, but languages have suffered disproportionately. A high-profile campaign by the British Council Scotland last year highlighted a fall in the number of Foreign Language Assistants (FLAs) – native speakers who act as classroom assistants during language lessons and who often work across several schools – from 284 in 2006 to just 59 this year.
The campaign claimed a qualified victory when it was announced that FLA numbers would rise by 19 per cent, to 70 in 2013, but Macaulay says sustained investment will be needed to properly resource 1 + 2.
“I think it’s going to be one of the biggest challenges,” he says on the issue of building up teaching resources. “There will be an onus on teachers” to develop and improve their language skills, as well as on employers to offer the necessary opportunities. “The key people to the delivery of the 1 + 2 approach are school teachers. There’s quite a lot in the report about the future development of teachers in particular through initial teacher education. We’ve set the bar quite high in terms of access to initial teacher education for future primary education, saying that all should have a Higher in an additional language, either at the start of their course or the completion of the course.” In some cases, poor use of human resources is another issue that will need to be addressed.
“One of the recommendations is to carry out an audit because there are a number of primary and secondary teachers who have a qualification or who have undergone a course in modern languages who, for whatever reason, are not teaching it. We need to know that to start with, and that’s a baseline before we can start talking to universities about how many more teachers need to be identified,” Macaulay says.
Notwithstanding the Scottish Government’s official response to the report, stewardship of the 1 + 2 policy will now pass to the implementation group. However, Macaulay’s personal involvement in its delivery isn’t completely at an end; as an honorary teaching fellow at the University of Aberdeen, he’ll be involved in academic study of the policy’s progress. The Chinese lessons will also continue, though they’re going “slowly”, Macaulay concedes: “It’s very demanding, but very rewarding.” Those tasked with delivering the revolution in language teaching he has mapped out would no doubt say the same.