FOREIGN language learning in Scotland’s schools has dipped to “worrying” new levels, education experts warned last night. The warning that the decline will have an negative impact on Scotland’s standing in the world came after it emerged that only about one in ten S5 pupils is taking foreign language courses.
An analysis of education statistics by The Scotsman has found the number of Higher course entrants for modern languages has fallen by nearly a quarter over the past 20 years, from 10,179 to just under 7,887 in 2011.
Within the figures, the starkest result was a 23 per cent drop in the number of pupils studying German at Higher level between 2008 and 2012.
At Standard Grade level, there was a 28 per cent reduction in pupils studying all languages over that four-year period, including a 28.5 decrease in French and a 41 per cent drop in German.
Despite the Scottish Government pledging to offer two languages in primary school, it appears that when offered the choice, many young Scots are choosing alternatives.
Last night, the scale of the problem was illustrated by the Scottish Government, which said that of 47,741 pupils in S5 in Scotland’s schools, there were 5,787 studying a foreign language at any level, which equates to 12.1 per cent.
From next year, the flagship Curriculum for Excellence will put greater emphasis on pupil choice, leading to concerns of further decline, and the Scottish Government last night said there was “widespread enthusiasm” for its plans to improve foreign language teaching.
However, new figures from the Scottish Council of Independent Schools has also found that, increasingly, Highers entrants are from private schools – despite the fact that fewer than 5 per cent of Scots children are in paid-for education.
Last year, independent schools accounted for 10 per cent of all Scotland’s French Higher students, 16 per cent of Spanish, 17 per cent of German and 18 per cent of Italian.
Across the board, fewer than two-thirds of fourth-year pupils studied a language and the number of fourth-year exam candidates is also in long-term decline.
The SQA also ended its Russian exam programme last year, and only two languages show an increase since 2008 – Spanish and Mandarin.
The latest evidence follows a survey conducted in 2011 by Scotland’s National Centre for Languages. It showed that of the 50 per cent of schools which responded, a third reported a continuing decline in the uptake of languages, with two-thirds saying numbers were stagnant.
Schools said languages came off badly when offered as alternatives to art, drama or a second science.
Liz Smith, the Scottish Conservatives’ education spokesman, said there was “deep-seated concern about the weakness of Scotland’s position on the teaching of languages” and a parliamentary committee is carrying out a wide-ranging study into why the situation was not improving.
From August, Curriculum for Excellence exams are introduced in secondary schools.
Most schools plan to “highly recommend” languages until the end of third year, but it is not clear what the impact will be on the uptake at exam level or on the numbers who study languages at university.
Derek Duncan, professor of Italian at St Andrews University, told The Scotsman: “The decline in language learning is of great concern to university language departments across the UK.
“It means we just don’t have the numbers of good candidates to choose from, so it is harder to turn out graduates with really excellent language skills.
”But in a broader sense I think languages are ever more important for understanding cultural diversity. They are part of life in the modern world.
“For Scots, there are opportunities to work and study abroad within Europe, and to make the most of those, they will need other languages.”
Sarah Breslin, director of Scotland’s National Centre for Languages, said pupils needed to be given adequate advice.
“We have to go into schools and sell languages to the students”, she said. “Employers and universities will be looking for candidates who have an international outlook. ”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Ministers are ambitious for Scotland’s future and there is widespread enthusiasm for our plans to improve language learning in Scotland.
“The available evidence suggests these can be achieved and we have made £4 million available in next year’s budget agreement with local authorities to support language learning.”