Eliane Whitelaw, head of languages at Leith Academy, displays only the faintest traces of her native French as she tells me the good news. The rest of her accent is unmistakable Edinburgh, where she has lived for more than 20 years.
In S1, S2 and S3 the school offers French and Spanish on a rotating basis. At the end of S2, pupils can choose a second foreign language and at the end of S3 they are free to drop one or both if they like.
“This year, we’ve got the best ever intake going into S4 because we have about 70 pupils who have chosen to carry on with Spanish,” Ms Whitelaw said. “In the past, it’s usually been about 25, and a good year, like last year, nearly 30, which was still not bad at all against the national trend. But 70!”
For a school with a roll of about 900, this figure – for one language in a single year group – is impressive. The school is also strong on Mandarin – the new Confucius Classroom Hub is based there and this year its students reached the finals of the British Council’s Mandarin public speaking competition in London for the second time in a row. German attracts healthy interest too.
Leith Academy is just one of several schools in Edinburgh, and across Scotland, that are defying a decline in modern languages. They are doing so with a mix of curriculum changes, bold approaches, sheer commitment and, you sense, quite a bit of fun.
The wider picture cannot be ignored. Only about one in 10 S5 pupils is studying a foreign language and the number of Higher entrants has dropped by almost a quarter in the last 20 years.
German has been particularly hard hit, with a 41 per cent fall in Standard Grade numbers between 2008 and 2012 and a 23 per cent drop in Highers.
“The demise is partly down to lack of interest from senior management, the mistaken belief that it’s not an important language,” one teacher said. “Yet Germany is a huge trading partner of Scotland.”
The number of pupils taking any Standard grade modern language has dropped by 28 per cent, with French down 28.5 per cent. The SQA is also axing Russian exams from 2015.
From next year, Curriculum for Excellence will offer pupils more choice at an earlier age, with some linguists worried their subjects will lose out to art, drama or a second science.
But Ms Whitelaw has no such concerns. For her and her colleagues, it is all about attracting and keeping pupils by showing them how relevant and enjoyable languages are.
“We’ve changed our approach massively in the time I’ve been here (seven years),” she continued. “We use technology a lot to keep the kids engaged because we live in a very visual world. We have subscriptions to language websites. We also go on wee trips to local Spanish or French restaurants, and organise viewings of foreign language films outside class time.” Overseas trips are on offer this year as well.
“We regularly do French breakfasts when the subject is first period of the day. It’s all about bringing as much culture as possible, in the broadest sense, into the classroom.”
Major course changes have proved crucial too. “We’ve embarked on the Languages for Life and Work Award, which is internally assessed and very popular compared with Standard grade, which it has replaced for us.”
Available at Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework Levels 3 and 4, the award is as practical as its name suggests. Many pupils who might have stopped languages in S3 are even returning to do one unit of the Award in French, German or Mandarin in S6.
“You write your CV in a foreign language – looking at your personality and matching the jobs out there, and what you do for interview skills,” Ms Whitelaw says.
Pamela Tosh, curriculum leader for modern languages at Broughton High, also in Edinburgh, cites the strong links with its four feeder primaries as the key to getting off to a good linguistic start.
“Students do an interdisciplinary learning course on Wednesday afternoon for the first year – it’s called Enterprising Edinburgh and it mixes Spanish, business and IT. By the time they get to the end of S2 pupils have experienced French, Spanish and Mandarin and can make choices, whereas in the past everyone had to carry on with French all the way to S4,” Ms Tosh explained.
For really keen linguists, the school also offers the Language Baccalaureate. “We offered it for the first time three years ago and only had one student. This year we’ve had three students and next year we’ve got seven hoping to take it.”
Some of these will do just half the Baccalaureate, an interdisciplinary project using language in a practical context. “For example this year we’ve had a really keen geographer who’s done a study into fracking in France and Britain. Another who was doing an investigation in drama wrote a play in French.”
The Languages for Life and Work Award has also been very popular for vulnerable, disengaged or hard-to-reach pupils targeted under the SQA’s More Choices, More Chances qualifications.
“They have just got that award at the end of S3, which is a good boost for their self-confidence,” Ms Tosh added. “They came in the other day brandishing their certificates.” Next year this group will rise to 20 from 16.
In theory, literacy and numeracy have become the only mandated requirements of secondary education beyond S3 but she estimates between 80 and 90 per cent at Broughton High are carrying on languages into S4. “When I first came here about 12 years ago there were three doing Higher French, a handful doing a little bit of Italian at lower level. We had no Spanish and no Chinese.”
Meanwhile, Simon Alexander, head of department at Boroughmuir High, said: “For next year’s S5 we have about one in three, that’s 70 pupils, taking a language Higher out of 200.”
However, these success stories are far from universal. One school in the Scottish capital reportedly has only five pupils continuing a language at S4. Many teachers told SecEd how highly they rated their language assistants, the native speakers, often in their 20s, whose numbers have fallen sharply across Scotland, and the whole UK, as a result of budget cuts. Those schools still lucky enough to have them usually share them.
But encouraging signs are widespread. Kara Nisbet, 23, who starts as a probationer in Ayrshire this August, enjoyed working on English language summer camps in Germany and Switzerland so much over the last few years that she has decided to set up a similar offering closer to home.
The first Articulate Language Camps will run this July north of Glasgow. Aimed at children aged seven to 17, they will engage them in French, Spanish or German in small groups, including activities from film-making to climbing and archery.
An international camp will bring together visiting French, Spanish and German young people aged 14 to 17, who will be immersed for part of the day in the language they are learning, then in mixed language groups for various afternoon activities. Ms Nisbet is confident these pilot camps will be enjoyable and productive, with places offered at net cost.
“I’m really passionate about languages and the camps I’ve been to abroad have been brilliant because the kids are so motivated to learn,” she said. “I thought we should have this model in Scotland and see how it goes.”
As Ms Whitelaw of Leith Academy says, it’s all about communication. “Sometimes they say, are you really French, Miss? They’re quite surprised. They think: if she can speak English like this, maybe I can speak French or Spanish like this. So it’s about perseverance, making pupils believe they can do it. Also, that it’s alright to make mistakes.”SecEd
Further informationArticulate Language Camps: www.articulate-languagecamps.com
Sam Phipps is a freelance journalist.