Reversing the modern language trend

Written by: Dr Judith McClure | Published:
Photo: iStock

With a focus on Mandarin, Dr Judith McClure discusses the need for local partnerships to inspire pupils to take up languages – an essential skill for the 21st century

Three years ago I wrote a very worthy piece on the Scotland China Education Network in SecEd. All we members of the teaching profession know exactly what the adjective worthy means. It was an account of how we had arrived at the right policies, structures, qualifications and collaborations to introduce the teaching and learning of Mandarin in Scotland's schools.

I do not mock this foundation work, which is essential in any new educational initiative. But we recognise that what really makes a difference in our schools is enthusiasm, commitment and innovation.

Three years on, we have the building blocks in place. Mandarin is one of the languages included in some of our Schools of Education, Mandarin teachers are registered with the General Teaching Council for Scotland, pupils are able to study Mandarin and follow Scottish Qualifications Authority courses at all levels, and some who obtained Higher or Advanced Higher Mandarin are now studying Chinese at UK universities.

So I should be cheering, and part of me is. But it is still not enough. We do not have enough qualified teachers and relatively few pupils are choosing Mandarin at any level.

You will know at once the reason for my concerns. It is not simply that pupils are not studying Mandarin; most are not opting for any modern language. As convener of the Scotland China Education Network (SCEN) I do naturally promote one particular language, but actually I see it in the context of modern language learning.

All languages matter and we need to ensure that all pupils are properly equipped with the understanding and skills they need for life and employment in the 21st century.

I do not think any of us would dispute this, but we know that the need to obtain high grades, the emphasis on STEM subjects, and the cost of employing teachers play their part in down-grading modern languages. This is a broad generalisation and I know there are many stories of success – but they are not embedded in all our schools.

In Scotland, Dr Jim Scott's recent research into the governance of modern languages is giving rise to considerable, much-needed debate.

Of course we must work with the policies, structures and national collaborations which we have carefully put together and which provide the essential foundations. But we must also be empowered to create local partnerships of enthusiastic practitioners in our schools, colleges and universities, aimed at inspiring young people, informing their parents and giving opportunities for language learning at all levels.

Some of these partnerships give cause for optimism about the future in Scotland. We do have a national policy – the 1+2 approach – that aims to ensure that every child has the opportunity to learn a modern language from P1, and a second modern language from P5.

This sits so well with the educational research, led by Professor Antonella Sorace, head of the Bilingualism Matters Centre at the University of Edinburgh, which demonstrates the benefits of early language learning.

In time, all primary teachers will acquire the requisite language expertise as part of their school and university education. For now, local authorities and schools, in primary and secondary clusters, are working together to introduce the two languages and to inspire pupils to continue their language learning throughout their secondary school career.

The SCEN is leading one such collaboration, co-ordinated by the SCEN field worker Simon Macaulay, who chaired the National Working Group. The method is to use international students at the University of Edinburgh to work with primary class teachers to introduce their own language and culture.

One aim was to contribute to the experience of international students by giving them a role in the local community that would enable them to gain useful skills in relating to teachers and pupils. The essence of the project was that it would be led in the classroom by qualified and experienced teachers, who would be able to give lively experiences to their pupils and enhance their own confidence in leading early language learning.

A pilot was held in eight East Lothian schools in 2012, and the project continued each session, supported by Scotland's National Centre for Languages at the University of Strathclyde as well as Bilingualism Matters and the Edinburgh University Students' Association.

Induction and support are provided and the work is rigorously evaluated by a very experienced HM inspector of education. It is also the subject of a research project. Now it is continuing in Midlothian and discussions are being held about its development elsewhere.

This is simply one project. Others are developing: George's Heriot's School and the City of Edinburgh Council are working on a Language Volunteer Ambassador programme, which trains students of an Advanced Higher language to go into schools and work with primary classes.

Other initiatives are taking place in Aberdeen and elsewhere. Each year we have meetings of a Languages Think Tank, with wide-ranging membership, which gives us a chance to share our experiences and to learn from them.

We also have events at which young people are delegates and speak about their learning, as well as hear from business leaders who explain the need for language skills in their international work.

Everyone is inspired by the Celebration of Chinese in the Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh, in which children as young as five perform with great delight in Mandarin, without the inhibitions about making mistakes which many of us will still have (I certainly do) from our first secondary language learning days.
What we need are leadership and enthusiasm. Headteachers must take their eyes away from the desire to get strings of top grades towards equipping their pupils for the world. They must listen to their teachers of modern languages, who will be in contact with local schools, colleges and universities with similar creative ideas.

Initiatives can be low cost: the SCEN Learning of Chinese programme relies on keen international student volunteers, who receive only their bus fares but are rewarded by their experiences, a certificate and a reference. Teachers of all modern languages, especially you wonderful teachers of Mandarin, share your ideas and your partnerships!

  • Dr Judith McClure CBE is convener of the Scotland China Education Network (SCEN) and secretary of the Cross Party Group on China at the Scottish Parliament. Visit


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