Education: Young Scots learn to speak up in Europe: A four-year pilot project has resulted in plans to introduce foreign language teaching for all under-11s in Scotland. Elizabeth Heron explains

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The Independent Online
EVERY PRIMARY school in Scotland is to start teaching modern languages, it was announced yesterday, weeks after education ministers in England rejected similar proposals for schools south of the border.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, Minister for Education at the Scottish Office, said that teachers from every Scottish primary school are to be trained to teach one of four European languages: French, Spanish, German or Italian. All primary schools will be expected to offer one of these languages, initially to pupils in the final year, but extending down to earlier years as trained teachers become available.

Lord James said: 'This will ensure for all pupils a sound early basis for language acquisition which can be developed as their education progresses. Funds of pounds 1.35m have been allocated for 1993/94 to meet the costs of training, and significantly larger sums will be allocated for future years.'

The blueprint for the plans is a successful four-year Scottish Office pilot study which has launched modern language teaching in 76 primary schools across Scotland, at a cost of pounds 1.8m.

Groups of schools involved in the pilot are linked to their local secondary school, with each cluster offering either French, German, Spanish or Italian. A secondary school language specialist is released to teach weekly lessons in the primary schools alongside class teachers, introducing language work that the primary teacher follows up.

The strategy for expanding the pilot and training teachers will be worked out in the coming months and the first trained teachers should be in schools by September 1994.

The Scottish Office is expected to draw heavily on an in-service training programme developed by Strathclyde Regional Council. In an unusual example of a Labour authority extending and enriching a Conservative policy, Strathclyde - which has three of the Scottish Office clusters - set up another 30 clusters and runs them itself at an annual cost of pounds 800,000.

Strathclyde has raced ahead in working out how to make the transition from reliance on secondary teachers in pilot schools to having primary teachers deliver the languages. The council contracted Glasgow University to design a training course that could accommodate both absolute beginners and advanced learners of French and make them competent to teach the language to young children in a year.

Sandy Wilson, Strathclyde's European adviser, said that the 24 teachers who volunteered for the 60-hour course - taken in their own time - were not quite ready to teach a French class at the end. But he is convinced that this year, with the hours increased to 150 and greater pedagogical content, it will work. 'The enthusiasm among teachers is enormous and I'm in no doubt that it is possible to get a primary teacher with a basic starting knowledge of a language to the appropriate level in a year,' he said.

Once the primary teachers had been trained, the secondary specialist would work with them for a year and then be phased out.

The course has already been developed - with sponsorship from French government agencies - into a video- based open learning training pack, which was published this month by the French publisher Editions Didier.

As in Scotland, the main obstacle to introducing primary languages in England and Wales is a lack of teachers with language competence. English and Welsh parents are very eager for their children to make an early start on languages: 71 per cent think 11 is too late to be starting a foreign language and 63 per cent think children should start at age eight or younger, according to research by BBC Select, the BBC's subscription service.

BBC Select has identified a substantial niche market of parents willing to pay for their under-11s to learn a language, and it is developing commercial language courses for them.

But faced with a shortage of teachers for introducing a national curriculum language at secondary level, the Government has shelved the issue of primary languages in England and Wales until more young people entering teacher training have, through the national curriculum, gained a language qualification - expected to be well into the next century.

The National Association of Head Teachers believes that, given Britain's disadvantage at language skills in Europe, steps need to be taken now in England and Wales to start teaching the under-11s, widely acknowledged as the most receptive age group.

The NAHT appealed last autumn to John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, to begin a gradual introduction of primary languages by conducting an audit of the number of inactive language teachers who would be interested in moving into primary teaching.

The headteachers also called for support to enable secondary teachers to be released to teach in neighbouring clusters of primary schools; for language assistants to be available to primary schools; and for language requirements and training programmes for primary teachers to be established without

delay. The Department for Education replied with its standard argument that shortages of secondary-level language teachers had to be remedied first, and that the NAHT's proposals were in danger of exacerbating the existing shortages.

Meanwhile, the little language teaching that does happen in primary schools - mostly French - is being squeezed out by the pressure of compulsory national curriculum subjects. That, in turn, is threatening the five remaining teacher training courses in England that offer a language as a main primary subject. Elaine Barnes, leader of the primary BEd course at Crewe and Alsager College, Cheshire, said: 'We have made a very reluctant decision not to offer French next year because we are having great difficulty finding schools that teach French where students could do their teaching practice.'

Instead of throwing away such expertise, why not learn from the Scottish experience and make the five colleges the basis for clusters of schools introducing primary language teaching in a limited and strategic way?

(Photograph omitted)