Modern Languages is one of the eight curriculum areas in the CfE (Curriculum for Excellence), along with Expressive Arts, Health and Well-being, Mathematics, Religious and Moral Education, Sciences, Social Studies and Technologies and therefore should be taught to every young person in education throughout the BGE (Broad General Education) stage of the CfE.
Languages have never been the choice of the majority when it comes to SQA exams. Ever since the early 2000s, the number of young people in Scotland choosing a language as part of their Senior Phase studies has been decreasing. Recently, the rate of decline has sped up. Taking French as an example, in 2016, 4581 Scottish Students sat their Higher exam. The following year, the same level was sat by 3918 pupils across the country; this is a 19% decrease. The number of pupils who chose to sit Higher German has also decreased by 13% over the past year. (1020 pupils in 2016 compared to 890 in 2017).
According to the 2016-2017 Languages Trend Report, as many as two thirds of teachers (66% from the state sector and 68% in the independent sector) find persuading young people to study a language beyond S3 challenging. That makes this issue the single biggest professional challenge that language teachers across Scotland currently face.
Why is this the case?
The need for good grades
As pupils come to the end of the BGE stage in the curriculum and embark on further years of intensive work towards SQA exams, they are aware of the fact that the choices they make about subjects, and the quality of the grades they get in the exams, will have a huge impact on their success at getting a place at their chosen university or college.
With tough competition for university places, and universities able to select the most able students, it is important that pupils select the subjects in which they believe they can achieve the highest grades in, and also those which relate directly to the course they wish to study in further education. SQA exams in Modern Languages have earned a reputation not only for being more difficult than other subjects, but also for being inconsistently and harshly marked. Both students and teachers have also long complained about the huge leap in performance expectations between National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher Modern Languages. The unpredictability of grades is a serious deterrent to students who are focused on doing everything they can to increase their chances of achieving high grades to secure university or college places.
“Languages are not as important as STEM subjects”
Whilst it is fantastic that the campaign to promote and raise the profile of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects has been and is continuing to be successful, it is in-turn contributing to the decline in interest of studying a Modern Language at exam level. The most ‘able’ students are often encouraged to study all three Science subjects as well as Maths and English at Higher, to secure them a place at Uni and later, a successful career.
Despite all the reasons you’ve most likely heard about the benefits of language learning – boosts chances of employability, allows you to travel with ease and helps you meet people from other countries – some people seem to think that being bi or multilingual isn’t all that important anymore. And it is due to the stereotypes it’s given, and the fact their importance isn’t widely shared that Scottish school pupils are now leaning towards other areas of the curriculum and moving away from studying these very important subjects.