A long-term decline in the number of pupils studying languages at Higher appears to have been reversed. New figures show most modern languages have seen an increase in entries in 2015 after years where numbers have fallen. Statistics from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) show French has seen a 10 per cent increase with entries rising to 4,572. Spanish continues a remarkable rise over the past decade with entries rising 28 per cent to 2413.
Insiders are cautiously optimistic, pointing out that some older pupils are now returning to languages in their senior years at school after dropping them earlier. But they also stress that some of the rise – including a slight recovery in historically low figures for German and Italian – is down to the habit of schools only offering certain languages once every two years. Overall, the number of entries at Higher for modern languages has increased by 14 per cent since 2014 from 7574 to 8625.
Gillian Campbell-Thow, chairwoman of the Scottish Association of Language Teachers (SALT), said: “While any increase in numbers of learners studying a foreign language will always be welcome, I don’t think we have suddenly hit the jackpot and languages are suddenly the go-to subject.”
The Scottish Government’s clear focus on Chinese – where teaching funded by Chinese Government – continues to fail to translate in to large numbers of learners. Figures fell this year, to just 89. Russian dropped again slightly, to 41. The language, Europe’s most widely spoken, is now being scrapped as a higher. There were also falls in Urdu and Gaelic for learners.
The Scottish Government welcomed the figures, saying they hoped a primary policy to increase the learning of languages, called 1+2, would continue to see numbers rise.
A spokesman said: “We are delighted at the record increases in pupils getting a Higher language qualification and we have also seen a remarkable increase of 190 per cent in the modern languages for life and work award, a clear illustration of the benefits of offering pupils greater choice in the courses of different levels. “Our ambitious languages policy – which will enable every child in Scotland to learn two languages in addition to their mother tongue by 2020 – has raised the profile of the huge benefits of language learning. “Parents and pupils are increasingly seeing the much greater opportunities that language skills can open up and how central they are to taking advantage of all the travel and work prospects out there.”
Experts, however, are not convinced that the primary school policy is having an impact on highers figures.
Language teaching specialist Dan Tierney welcomed the increase in entries, but warned that there was still too much confusion further down the school. He said:
“The halt in the decline at Higher is most welcome, particularly in French and German, and Spanish continues to go from strength to strength as more schools introduce it.
“It is good news that the European language numbers have improved, but there is no room for complacency as we hear some concerns from linguists about the effect of Curriculum for Excellence further down the school.
“There is still a need for the Scottish Government to have a coherent language policy from P1 to S5 because it is still in a muddle.”
Ms Campbell-Thow of SALT stressed that policies at secondaries were not quite adding up to the rhetoric about primaries. She said: “More often than not the numbers for German and Italian are due to a rotation of languages in school. Different languages being offered on a rota each year.
“This doesn’t quite marry up with the aspirations of 1+2 where ‘we will create the conditions for learners to be able to study two languages’. Next year we will probably see an increase in French numbers again due to this rotation model.” But she stressed the figures did represent a change in choices for senior pupils, who are now understanding the value of a second or third language. She said: “There are more learners in senior phase now and languages are being presented in a more favourable light. For a long time, it was not a subject that learners naturally gravitated towards. Crashing a Higher Language for learners in S6 who exited languages in S3 is being presented as an attractive option as an add-on to students who already have university requirements. We still get the sense it’s an add-on rather than the norm and while we won’t complain, a bit more stability, credibility and sustainability of curriculum would be welcome.”
There remain real concerns about the future of major world languages in Scottish schools.
Ms Campbell-Thow said: “It’s devastating to see such low numbers for Russian and its final demise in Scottish Schools. The reduction of numbers in Urdu and Mandarin Chinese is also a worry. We are still at the stage that we find mostly native speakers doing Urdu and that is something we want to address – how do we contextualise Urdu more and get non native speakers to study it?”
Mr Tierney believes the answer to better language learning is compulsion – the old Labour-Liberal Democrat executive scrapped compulsory language learning to S4. But Mr Tierney reckons a language should be a part of every student’s portfolio at Higher and that there is a case for making it a requirement for university entry. The recent demise of languages in secondary has been blamed on the fact many schools no longer see them as compulsory, despite school inspectors calling for them to be a “core element” in the first three years of secondary. In addition, as part of cuts to education budgets, two-thirds of local authorities have scrapped foreign language assistants, although some are now reinstating them.A recent report by the Scottish Government’s Languages Working Group said a decline in language learning at Scottish schools and universities was costing the economy at least half a billion pounds every year.