The lack of languages in Curriculum for Excellence undermines Scotland's claims to internationalism

Written by Jenni Davidson on 10 May 2019 in Comment

It is the breadth and depth of education that is the mark of excellence, and Scotland does not match up to European standards

Greta Thunberg in the European Parliament - Image credit: European Parliament audiovisual

If the worst thing anyone said about my Swedish pronunciation was that it sounded a wee bit stilted, I’d be very happy.

Yet when Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill recently criticised teenage climate campaigner Greta Thunberg for having a “monotone voice”, he failed to notice that, apart from having Asperger’s, she is also speaking a foreign language.

And speaking it very well indeed. Her English, which she is brave enough to use publicly, conversing with world leaders, on stages in front of huge crowds and on TV, is impeccable.

And while the extent of Thunberg’s public platform is not normal, her second language ability is.

 It would be perfectly usual for any 16-year-old in Sweden, and most other countries in Europe, to speak English fluently enough to competently discuss a wide range of contemporary issues, maybe not on TV, but in a conversation.

But how many teenagers in Scotland would be able to do the same in a second language?

None, I suspect, unless they had been brought up bilingual at home.

While Scotland smugly thinks of itself as more outward-looking and international than the rest of the UK, in reality, few Scots can communicate with anyone from another EU country unless the other person is willing to speak English.

The ability of most other European nations to speak at least one, frequently two or more, foreign languages is not because of some sort of innate linguistic talent that we lack, but simply because language learning is compulsory to a higher level than it is here and fluency in at least one other language is considered normal rather than exceptional.

In Denmark, all pupils take two foreign languages up to the age of 16 and at least one beyond that in 16-19 education.

In Sweden, one foreign language is compulsory up to year nine, the final year of compulsory schooling (the equivalent of S4) and 85 per cent take a second foreign language.

The majority then go on to one of 18 different academic or vocational post-16 upper secondary courses, many of which will further develop their language skills.

Yet here we have a secondary curriculum that is so narrow at the senior phase that it virtually guarantees that the majority of pupils will not continue with one foreign language after S2 or S3, let alone two.

There is no point in starting two languages at primary, or indeed widening Gaelic medium education, if this learning is then cut short in the early stages of secondary.

Scotland has ambitions to be the best place to grow up, yet it denies its young people the sort of broad-based education covering languages, sciences, social and creative subjects up to a senior level that is the norm in most other European countries.

This doesn’t just affect language skills, but also Scotland’s STEM ambitions, forcing children to drop vital core subjects at a very early stage.

At a fringe event at the SNP conference last week, education secretary John Swinney complained that the criticism of Curriculum for Excellence failed to take account of the fact that the main qualification year is now not S4 but Highers at S5.

And the SNP has constantly defended criticisms of the poor subject choice at S4 by pointing to how many Highers pupils are getting.

But this misses the point. It is what pupils are learning, the breadth and depth of education they are receiving, not simply how many qualifications they get that is the mark of excellence.

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