Modern Languages Debate

Friday, May 25th, 2012 @ 8:21AM

On Thursday 24th May, Kezia spoke in the Scottish Government led debate on Modern Languages. She made the following speech, broadly welcoming the plans to introduce foreign languages into the Primary 1 classroom, but highlighted the need to resource it and the additional challenges that the 3500 kids in Edinburgh schools, for whom English is a second language, face.

Kezia Dugdale (Lothian) (Lab): My mum, who was a modern languages teacher for many years, is the first to say that I have no natural gift for languages. At school, I was quite academic, but I had to work a lot harder to be good at French. I got a good grade, but that was in part because there was a fluent French speaker in my house. I ditched French at the first opportunity. I wanted to go to university and get good grades, so I picked subjects that I liked and enjoyed and, to be frank, French did not fit into that. I now regret that, because of the obvious employability benefits that foreign languages bring.

As I got older, I developed a real love for Spain and all things Spanish, so I forced myself to try to learn Spanish—I have done night classes at the University of Edinburgh and paid a private tutor. That has been torture, because I just do not have the natural ability. Even though I now want to learn Spanish, I find it difficult.

I read with great interest the report to which the Government’s motion refers. I want to make a positive speech overall, so I will get the negativity out of the way first. From my perspective, the report has two flaws: first, it recognises the need for an audit of the skills base in the education system; I am disappointed that that has not yet taken place.

Secondly, the report says that it cannot estimate the amount of resources that are needed to deliver the pilot projects, but without that we cannot estimate the size of the challenge that is ahead. Like cute puppies and the aroma of fresh coffee, the aim of teaching modern languages to primary 1 kids is a great idea that makes us feel good and feel that we are doing good, but it is hard to keep the faith if we do not know who will deliver it and how much it will cost.

Dr Allan: I will be positive, but some of the things that Kezia Dugdale mentions were not part of the working group’s remit. Does she accept that conversations between the Government and stakeholders are the way to answer some of the questions that she raises?

Kezia Dugdale: I absolutely accept that, but the issue should have been at the heart of the remit. How can the Government seek to tackle a problem if it does not start with what resources or tools it has at its disposal? Therefore, the audit of skills is urgent and I look forward to hearing the Government explain how it will make progress on it.

Teachers whom I have spoken to are positive about the initiative, but they are quick to highlight the training needs of teachers. If we want kids to soak up a new language, we need to immerse them in it from the beginning. Those points were well evidenced by Maureen Watt and Marco Biagi. It is ridiculous to ask a primary teacher with a higher in Spanish to take on that task, and it could be counterproductive. We need to empower kids to learn a language. It is not simply about teaching them the French or Spanish for “cat” or “dog”; we need to empower them to ask questions, such as “¿Cómo se dice … ?”, or “How do you say … ?” Those are the sort of skills that we need to give young people.

I am pleased that the report recognises the role of mother languages that are not English in the 1+2 strategy. To give some statistics, 24,555 kids in Scotland have English as an additional language, which is 3.7 per cent of all Scottish pupils. Of them, 3,588 are in Edinburgh, which represents 8 per cent of the school population in our capital city. That is a hugely significant amount, but when we get down to school level, it becomes even more significant. No fewer than 100 of the children at Leith primary school, just down the road, have English as an additional language. That is 36 per cent of the school roll. That is a huge amount that—of course—brings challenges, but the school relishes that and, in fact, celebrates it. Every time a new country is represented in the school, a new flag is hung. The headteacher told me that, just last week, they hung the Nepalese and Guatemalan flags for the first time. That is fantastic and wonderful and it shows the diversity in Scotland that we love, but additional resources are needed to support the school.

The City of Edinburgh Council has an English as an additional language service. That is great, too, but it is hugely underresourced. As I said, 100 kids at Leith primary school have English as an additional language, but they have access to one teacher for one and half days a week, and that is all. That is only enough time to train teachers. The English as an additional language specialists never get anywhere near the kids whom they seek to support in the classroom. With more resources, their time could be better spent. However, we are kidding ourselves if we think that the infrastructure is there even to support the kids with additional languages who are already in our schools. There are just 6.2 full-time equivalent bilingual support assistants for the whole of Edinburgh—that is six people to support 3,000 kids.

Neil Findlay: I acknowledge what Kezia Dugdale says. In my previous post, I had the great fortune to teach a Polish pupil who had just come into the country and who was a delight to teach. However, that boy was put into my class—an additional needs support class—along with a number of kids who had complex learning difficulties. He had no problem other than the language issue. That situation was due to a resourcing matter, which indicates the difficulties that teachers face day to day. The support for the Polish boy in the school and the support for me as a teacher was limited. Indeed, I was more terrified than he was at the prospect of having to teach him.

Kezia Dugdale: I welcome that intervention. Neil Findlay has highlighted that getting to grips with English as an additional language will help the Government’s strategy because it will get it one step further along the way, if we do it properly. It is already referred to in the modern languages report, but if the minister could progress some of the issues, he would make his long-term goals more achievable, at the same time.

Leith primary school staff also told me that they relish the opportunity to teach modern languages in the primary school setting and that they had found that the best way to get teachers to do that is to send them abroad for training. We might think that that would be difficult and resource intensive, but they found a source of European Union funding called the Comenius fund, which provides for all the costs for travel and subsistence so that teachers can go abroad for between one day and six weeks to learn to be a modern languages teacher.

I found no reference to Comenius funding in the language report strategy document. In fact, I found no reference to European Union funding anywhere in the document. I strongly urge the minister to look at alternative sources of funding that he could draw on to progress his agenda. The funding need not all be drawn from Scottish Government pots.

Of course we are broadly supportive of the Government’s ambition, but we need to see the audit so that we can understand what resources are needed to fulfil that ambition. When we know how much it will cost, we will be in a position to match that boldness with the necessary budget. Will the Government take the lead when the true cost is known?

On verra;

Veremos;

Wir werden sehen.

We shall see.

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