Foreign language teaching policy in primary schools: Scotland

A brief history of language teaching policy in Scottish primary schools.

In Scotland, education is a devolved matter over which the Scottish Parliament rather the UK Parliament at Westminster has oversight. The most recent data shows there are 2019 State primary, 360 State secondary schools in Scotland (Scottish Government, 2017b). The vast majority of these are English medium, with 58 primary and 31 secondary schools across the country offering Gaelic Medium Education (GME) (Bòrd na Gàidhlig, 2018).

Modern Languages in the Primary School (MLPS)

In 1989, the MLPS initiative was piloted, followed by a roll-out to every primary school in Scotland beginning in 1993. The aim was that ‘all Scottish Primary Schools should offer teaching in a modern European language: French, German, Spanish or Italian’ (Scottish Office, 1993). The model aimed to train one or two teachers in a primary school who would be responsible for all the ML teaching in their school thereafter.

A report by the Ministerial Action Group on Languages found the key strengths of the MLPS initiative included:

• the enthusiasm and motivation of almost all pupils;
• high attainment by some very able pupils; and
• examples of good or very good teaching in 85% of schools (HMSO, 1998)

However, it proved increasingly challenging to ensure consistency of the provision for P6 and P7 children and the professional learning of teachers. Writing in 2010, Crichton and Templeton claimed that ‘a consensus seems to have been established that the MLPS initiative has not reached its potential owing to the lack of consistency and training given to practitioners’ (ibid: 144).

A 1+2 approach to language learning

In 2011, the newly re-elected SNP-led Scottish Government set up the Languages Working Group (LWG). The key recommendations in the LWG report were that ‘schools offer children access to an additional language from Primary 1 (Reception)’ and that ‘a second additional language be introduced no later than Primary 5 (Yr4).’ (Scottish Government, 2012). There was a presumption of inclusion too, as language learning is ‘recognised as an entitlement for all young people through to the end of their broad general education’ (S3, Yr9) (ibid) and it explicitly referenced British Sign Language, Classical languages, community and heritage languages alongside Gaelic, English, Scots and modern European languages.

The Scottish Government accepted all of the report’s recommendations. The time frame for implementation was over the course of two Parliaments i.e. 10 years, 2011-2021. Between 2012/13 and 2017/18 the 32 local authorities in Scotland received a share of £27.2 million funding from Scottish Government to support the implementation of the policy, much of which has gone into professional learning opportunities for primary teachers and language learning resources for primary schools. Despite this, the availability and quality of professional learning for in-service primary teachers continues to be a challenge.

The LWG report (Scottish Government, 2012) recommended that new primary teachers have at least a Higher qualification in a language (equivalent to A/S level) on entry/exit from initial teacher education (ITE). This has yet to be incorporated into all primary ITE programmes in Scotland (GTCS, 2006). In March 2018 the Scottish Council of Deans of Education (SCDE) Languages Group launched the ‘National Framework for Languages (NFfL) Initial Teacher Education’ website to try and address the fact that at present, language upskilling and languages pedagogy are not yet core to all primary ITE programmes.

Following disappointing PISA results in 2015 (OECD, 2016), the Scottish Government launched the Attainment Challenge (SAC) and the National Improvement Framework (NIF) (Scottish Government, 2016). As a result, the focus of Scottish education became literacy, numeracy, health and wellbeing – seen as tools to narrow the attainment gap and raise achievement for all.

Subsequently, the 1+2 approach has struggled to maintain its previously high profile. With the spotlight on literacy, language learning should have been a natural fit for the raising attainment agenda, instead the 1+2 policy quickly became referred to as ‘a continuing policy’ (Scottish Government, 2017a), one separate from, rather than an integrated part of, the major policy direction. Since then, the annual 1+2 funding to local authorities has fallen by over half.

The most up-to-date self-report data from local authorities state that full entitlement to the first additional language (L2) was in place from P1-P7 (R-Yr6) in 91% of State primary schools, and in S1-S3 (Yr7-Yr9) in 62% of State secondary schools (Glen, 2018). French is the most common L2 taught in Scottish primary schools by a factor of over nine, followed by Spanish, Gaelic (Learners), Italian and Mandarin. In addition, Spanish is most common L3 followed by French, German, Gaelic (Learners), Mandarin and Italian.

In their mid-point evaluation of the implementation of the policy, Christie et al. (2016) found that progress ‘has been good but that it is still some way from being firmly established in the curriculum’ (ibid: 7).

Lynne Jones
Professional Development Officer
Scotland’s National Centre for Languages
University of Strathclyde.

• Bòrd na Gàidhlig (2018) Dàta Foghlaim 2017-18 Education Data.
• Crichton, H. and Templeton, B. (2010) Curriculum for Excellence: the way forward for primary languages in Scotland?’ in The Language Learning Journal, 38 (2): 139-147.
• Christie, J., Robertson, B., Stodter, J. and O’Hanlon, F. (2016) A Review of Progress in Implementing the 1+2 Language Policy. ADES/Scottish Government.
• Glen, L. (2018) Language Learning in Scotland: National Overview. Paper presented at LANGS Meeting, 1st June 2018 at Charteris Land, University of Edinburgh.
• GTCS (2006) Guidelines for Initial Teacher Education Courses in Scotland. The Standard for Initial Teacher Education. The Standard for Full Registration.
• HMSO (1998) Standards and Quality in Primary and Secondary Schools: 1994-98: Modern Languages. Edinburgh: HMSO
• OECD (2016) PISA 2015 Results (Volume I): Excellence and Equity in Education. Paris: OECD Publishing.
• Scottish Government (2012) Language Learning in Scotland: A 1+2 Approach. Report & Recommendations.
• Scottish Government (2016) National Improvement Framework for Scottish Education. Achieving Excellence and Equity.
• Scottish Government (2017a) 1+2 languages – a continuing policy.
• Scottish Government (2017b) Summary Statistics for Schools in Scotland, No. 8: 2017 Edition
• Scottish Office (1993) Education and Industry Department, January. Edinburgh: Scottish Office.

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