From Scotland on Sunday, December 3, 2011:
FOREIGN diplomats in Scotland have banded together in a unique protest sparked by fears over how foreign languages are taught in our schools.
They fear that unless something is done Scottish pupils will lose out in the international market.
Consul generals from five of the country’s major trading partners – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and China – have expressed their joint concern over an 80 per cent fall in the number of foreign language assistants (FLAs) teaching in Scotland’s schools over the past five years.
They claim the reduction has been caused by financial cutbacks by councils and warn that if the trend continues future generations of Scots will be at a disadvantage compared with overseas students.
The cutbacks have emerged despite a Scottish Government aspiration that all pupils will eventually study two foreign languages. It says modern languages are “central” to the success of the Curriculum for Excellence, the controversial teaching framework introduced in August 2010.
But figures compiled by the British Council, which manages the FLAs programme, show that the number of teaching assistants from overseas has fallen from 285 in 2005/6 to 59 this year.
The five countries have trade links with Scotland worth around £4.5 billion a year. They point out that the cost of hiring a foreign language assistant is just £8,000 a year.
Javier Jiménez-Ugarte, consul general of Spain, said: “The Spanish Consulate General regards the dramatic reduction in numbers of foreign language assistants in Scottish schools as one of alarming concern. As native speakers who use the language naturally, FLAs provide an opportunity for young learners to speak another language for real.”
Pierre-Alain Coffinier, consul general of France, said: “Learning a language is not only about learning vocabulary and grammar, but about being able to develop self-confidence, communication and intercultural skills in a foreign language and culture. That is the key to opening Scottish youngsters’ horizons and to broaden their prospects in life.”
Lloyd Anderson, director of the British Council in Scotland, said: “As the most senior diplomats to Scotland from their respective nations, the consuls general are living proof of the importance of language learning for intercultural dialogue. Their alarm at the decline in foreign language assistants must be taken seriously.
“By allowing our foreign language assistant intake to dwindle so sharply, Scotland could be hampering efforts to encourage our young people to continue studying languages to a high level. In the long run, this could undermine our ambition to increase trade and investment with other countries.”
The British Council manages the foreign language assistants programme with a grant from the Scottish Government but individual local authorities decide whether to take on and pay for them. Schools are currently expected to offer at least one modern language no later than P6, although there is no specification over which language that should be. It is expected that all pupils should continue to study a foreign language to at least the end of S3, although there is no statutory requirement for this.
The Scottish Government’s target is that all pupils will eventually study two foreign languages in addition to English from primary school.
A spokesman for Cosla said spending priorities were decided by individual councils, but added: “Along with other important subjects the teaching of foreign languages in Scottish schools remains a crucial part of our education system.”
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: “Foreign language assistants make a valuable contribution to Scottish schools, enhancing classroom learning through ‘real life’ language practice, and we welcome the fact that consular officials here in Scotland recognise this valuable input and are keen to see it continue.
“Our Languages Working Group will consider how they can help deliver our ambitions to boost language learning in Scotland’s schools.”