Scottish schools teach French to pupils who struggle to read English – Cameron Wyllie

Being able to ask directions to the Eiffel Tower is unlikely to be of much use to pupils who are unable to read or write properly in English (Picture: Kamil Zihnioglu/AP)
Being able to ask directions to the Eiffel Tower is unlikely to be of much use to pupils who are unable to read or write properly in English (Picture: Kamil Zihnioglu/AP)
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We have a problem in Scottish classrooms and it doesn’t just apply to modern languages, writes Cameron Wyllie.

This is a month in which, extraordinarily, Scottish teachers have refused a nine per cent pay deal – with a further three per cent in April 2020 – or, at least, 57 per cent of the teachers who voted in the EIS ballot did so.

Teachers do work very hard indeed, often in very stressful environments, but that does seem quite generous to me, and I would welcome the fillip to my pension, of course. It also signals the desperation with which the Scottish Government is now approaching the whole area of education – if you can’t mend it, chuck a barrel of money at it.

Well, the EIS’s head is well inside the mouth of this particular gift horse, and we can leave them there for the moment. What is necessary, and what isn’t happening, is a much more radical discussion of where Scotland lies educationally, so here are some more thoughts for public consideration, while the teachers and the Government discuss how to deliver more of the same at a (much) greater cost.

I have already suggested that we need a much more individually tailored and much more flexible approach to the way schools are structured, but of course there is also the issue of what we actually teach in the schools. As you will know, the current Scottish curriculum goes under the title of ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ (CfE) when, as many commentators have pointed out, it’s not a curriculum at all, and it doesn’t seem to be leading towards excellence. A fairer name would be something like ‘A Theory towards Vagueness’ or possibly a ‘Prescription for Citizenship’.

The Curriculum for Excellence took as its starting point what were called the four ‘capacities’, which were – and like many Scottish teachers, it took me months to learn them – that children should be effective contributors, responsible citizens, confident individuals and ... wait for it ... successful learners.

READ MORE: The grim reality of life as a pupil in a Scottish school – Harriet Sweatman

I can’t imagine there is anyone – parent, pupil or teacher – who doesn’t think that schools have a duty to produce successful learners. Scottish schoolchildren – and this in itself is an issue worthy of discussion – spend about seven hours a day, four-and-a-half days a week, 40 weeks of the year in schools. This amounts to only about 16 per cent of their entire time for 13 years, if they stay to S6.

What has happened is that all of society’s expectations for young people are now meant to be managed by schools. It’s as if, on entering hospital with a broken leg, the expectation is that hospitals will – as well as mending the leg – make children better, more confident, happier people, ready to face the world, and deal with every aspect of their capacity as young citizens of Scotland. These other qualities, of kindness, social awareness and confidence, can be achieved in other ways, and it’s simply not feasible to carry on with CfE when academic standards, including the basic levels of literacy and numeracy, are dropping.

I believe that primary education needs to have a bit less faffing about and focus, in the classroom, on reading, writing, numeracy, IT skills, science, creative thinking and resilience, this latter through things like outdoor education and team building, with the aim of beginning to combat this huge epidemic of unhappiness, some of it actual mental illness, which is afflicting teenagers.

READ MORE: Cameron Wyllie: Face the facts, some kids are just smarter than others

I think that the first step in closing the poverty-related attainment gap should be to ensure that all Scottish schoolchildren can read and write and use a computer at a level appropriate to their age by the time they leave primary school. I would have a certificate of literacy, as previously suggested but eventually rejected by the unions and others, at age 14. Then I think that in secondary education, after S2, there needs, in combination with the flexible approach to academic and vocational education, to be much greater flexibility with regard to subjects studied and the levels of study.

We have a problem in Scottish classrooms which I characterise as the S4 French problem, though it applies in other subject areas too. Many, many Scottish pupils do French in S4 and lots of them, particularly less ‘academic’ boys and girls don’t like it; in my view the modern language courses are particularly bad, despite the best efforts of teachers to teach them.

Many, many children are bored in S4 French, either because it’s way too easy, or because it’s simply something they are not interested in or can’t do. We have children sitting in French classes who can’t read or write properly in English.

At every turn, when we are deciding on what subjects should be taught and what level each child is being taught at, the watchword should be ‘appropriate’ – appropriate to that child. We do need to look long and hard at what we offer and its applicability. And the patronising view that every child needs to have an extended bash at academic learning so they are not shut off from entering university needs to be questioned hard, while at the same time we do more to push our most academic pupils. One personal, fairly large, bee in my mortar board is to ask why it is that we don’t insist that young people know more about Scotland today – most young people would struggle to identify the differences between Scottish political parties (many of them, for example, would fail to recognise Richard Leonard; that’s a joke, obviously ...) but we expect them to grow up and vote about Brexit – remember the Scottish Government wants young people to vote at 16 (quite right) but the education system doesn’t do much to help them.

So my cheeky finishing thought is this – let’s make the modern studies curriculum more Scottish biased, and let’s make it a compulsory subject from S1 to S4. Now I’m away to hide.

Cameron Wyllie, a retired headteacher, publishes a blog called A House in Joppa