Foreign Languages (Primary Schools)

Question Time — Scottish Executive — Education and Young People, Tourism, Culture and Sport – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:00 pm on 2nd December 2004.

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Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 2:00 pm, 2nd December 2004

To ask the Scottish Executive what steps it is taking to support the teaching of foreign languages in primary schools. (S2O-4355)

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

Since 2001, the Scottish Executive has provided education authorities with more than £14 million to support the implementation of the recommendations made in the report by the action group on languages "Citizens of a Multilingual World".

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

Does the minister accept that the notorious incompetence of people in Scotland and the rest of Britain in foreign languages is a serious handicap to our ability to take maximum advantage of European trade opportunities? Has he done any assessment of the success of the recent teaching of foreign languages in primary 6 and primary 7 and of whether that offers a successful way of changing the scenario? Is he looking at the possibility of rolling out language immersion for primary 1 children, which is being piloted in Aberdeen and which could copy the success of Gaelic-immersion schools in a slightly different context?

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I am more than happy to consider new ideas of ways to advance the cause of promoting better language use in Scotland. I am one of the incompetent Scots who does not have other languages. That is a matter of personal regret because, in the past when I was operating in European political forums, all the people around me could speak several languages and, to my shame, I could not. Many people in Scotland and the rest of Britain believe that because most people speak English, we do not have to learn other languages. That is one of the major challenges facing education in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. However, all the evidence shows that learning other languages is good for the brain and for expanding learning capacity and that whether someone learns other languages determines how competitive they will be in the future jobs market. Undoubtedly our young people will have to compete on a European stage in the future more than they have to do today, so having one or more additional languages would be a clear advantage.

On the member's first point, there has been a lot of success in giving young people an entitlement to speak a modern European language by the time they are in primary 6. Currently, 96 per cent of pupils in primary 6 are studying a modern language, as are 98 per cent of primary 7 pupils. There is therefore a high rate of adoption of the policy to encourage and give an entitlement to young people to speak other languages. We all have a duty to encourage that.

Photo of Irene Oldfather Irene Oldfather Labour

The minister has acknowledged the challenge ahead of us and he is no doubt aware that according to research by the European Commission, only 34 per cent of UK citizens speak a second language compared with 98 per cent in some other member states. Does he agree that inter-regional co-operation and joint projects with schools in other regions of the European Union can greatly assist pupil motivation by allowing them to engage with other young people and getting them interested in learning languages? Will he join me in welcoming the European Commission's Comenius programme and the involvement of local authorities such as North Ayrshire Council in progressing such programmes?

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I join Irene Oldfather in congratulating that council on its involvement in that programme. I acknowledge that she is not one of the incompetent Scots, because she is competent in French as I know from her involvement in the European Committee of the Regions. When she was entertaining visitors to the Parliament last week, she conversed in French for the whole evening. She is to be congratulated on the example that she sets for the rest of us.

I also applaud Irene Oldfather's point that the more it is possible for us to connect our schools with other modern European countries, share language skills and use modern technologies, the more we should do that. Interesting things are happening in Scottish schools to connect electronically with France and other parts of the European Union to ensure that there are real-time opportunities for young people to converse in other languages.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

Is the minister aware of the innovative scheme at Rothesay Primary School where one teacher has refreshed her language teaching skills so that she can provide all the language teaching in the school and free up the other teachers for non-contact time? Is that initiative not worthy of consideration for repetition elsewhere in Scotland?

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I am not aware of the particular scheme to which Lord James refers, but I will be happy to receive information about it. However, Lord James makes a good point—I do not always say that—that some councils are using the opportunity that is created by the reduction in class contact time imaginatively by deploying specialisms to fill up the time. That is one way to advance not just languages but other specialisms in schools.