Modern language learning in a globalised world

Elementary school students raising hands. View from behind.

by Stacey Dingwall

In November, the Teaching Schools Council published Ian Bauckham’s Modern foreign languages pedagogy review, which looked at modern foreign languages teaching practice in key stages 3 and 4 in England.

The EBacc and modern languages

The review was announced in May last year by schools minister Nick Bole, shortly after it was indicated that 3,500 more language teachers would be needed in order to realise the government’s desire for 90% of pupils to sit the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), which includes a language component.

Only 40% of English pupils currently take the EBacc. The Education Datalab’s estimate of the number of additional language teachers needed to increase this to 90% represents an increase of almost 40%. The government has missed its recruitment target for language teachers for the last four years, achieving just 87% of its target in 2015.

The Education Datalab’s latest data on the EBacc, published in October, suggests that the number of pupils who sit the qualification has stalled because there hasn’t been a significant increase in the number of entries in languages.

The Bauckham review

Ian Bauckham’s review emphasises the “clear educational, personal, cultural, social, cognitive, career and business benefits in being able to communicate confidently in another language”. However, it notes that the latest edition of the CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey found that over 50% of employers were not satisfied with their employees’ foreign language skills.

Although this is problematic for the country on a variety of levels, the Bauckham review points to the difficult context in which schools find themselves with regards to teaching foreign languages. Aside from recruitment issues, teachers are also dealing with some negative attitudes to foreign language learning from pupils and their parents, who may have had a poor language learning experience themselves. The review highlights that it is much easier for non-native English speakers to acquire the language due to its global dominance.

Schools also have to juggle the competing pressure of increasing the number of pupils taking STEM related subjects. The issue of a shortfall of people with STEM skills in the UK has received a great deal more attention from researchers and policymakers in recent years than a lack of those with language skills.

Language learning in Scotland: the 1+2 approach

In 2012, the Scottish Government published “Language learning in Scotland: a 1+2 approach”. Intended to be rolled out across two parliaments, the approach was included in the government’s 2011 manifesto, which stated their intention to “introduce a norm for language learning in schools based on the European Union 1+2 model – that is we will create the conditions in which every child will learn two languages in addition to their own mother tongue”.

The Scottish Government’s ambition for the approach is that by 2020, all children will start to learn an additional language from P1 that they will continue studying until at least S3. They will also be given the opportunity to start studying a third language no later than P5. This ambition also fits in with the government’s focus on closing the attainment gap during its term, with the language approach working to achieve key goals such as increasing the employability of school leavers.

Overall, the Scottish Government says its key aim in improving and expanding language learning in schools is that “young people are equipped with the skills and competencies they need in our increasingly globalised world” – a prudent ambition in increasingly uncertain times.

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What state is the Scottish education system in?

by Stacey Dingwall

On Tuesday, the Scottish Government published new statistics on the country’s education system, contained in the evidence report for the National Improvement Framework for Scottish Education. The report outlines progress made against each of the four priorities set by the Scottish Government in January when it first published the Framework:

  • Improvement in attainment, particularly in literacy and numeracy;
  • Closing the attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged children;
  • Improvement in children and young people’s health and wellbeing;
  • Improvement in employability skills and sustained, positive school leaver destinations for all young people.

The government’s priority

The Scottish Government has previously identified education as its top priority, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stating that her actions in this area are what she wishes to be judged on during her time in office.

Unfortunately, these latest statistics did not bring good news for the First Minister. While Education Secretary John Swinney highlighted that the number of teachers in the country had increased overall, he also conceded that “significant improvements” were needed in some areas. These areas include a worsening of the ratio of pupils to teachers in 12 council areas, and a slight increase in class sizes overall.

2015 Pisa results

The progress report came on the heels of the previous week’s bad news: Scotland’s performance in the 2015 Pisa rankings. The country recorded its worst ever results in the OECD survey, with scores for maths, science and reading declining since 2012. Scotland’s 2015 results in these areas were all classified as ‘average’, in contrast to 2000’s results of ‘above average’.

Although Scotland maintained its position within the OECD statistical average, the results indicate that the country is now performing ‘significantly below’ other countries in some areas, including England (science).

Has the Scottish education system got worse?

Reacting to the Pisa results, opposition parties called them evidence of “a decade of educational failure” under the SNP. Keir Bloomer of Reform Scotland and the Commission on School Reform also said that it was “no longer credible to describe Scotland’s education system as world leading”, and suggested there was now an “urgent” case for reform.

This is not something that the Scottish Government has shied away from admitting. As we reported from this year’s Scottish Learning Festival, John Swinney has made it his intention to “declutter’ the Scottish education system, by reducing teachers’ workloads around assessments. A number of actions have either been implemented, or are in the process of being introduced, in response to the OECD’s 2015 review of education policy, practice and leadership in Scotland, which the government commissioned itself. These include the expansion of the Scottish Attainment Challenge, funding from which enabled 63% of the increase in FTE teachers in Scotland last year.

Pisa overemphasis?

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching union, said that it was important not to make any “snap judgements” based on the Pisa results, emphasising the need for analysis of the full data released by the OECD rather than headline findings.

We looked at issues raised around the influence of Pisa results in 2014, when academics and research questioned the system’s reliability and its claim that when schools are given more independence over spending, their schools achieve better academic results. An evaluation of the Pisa methodology published in May this year found that it had a series of limitations including “an inconsistent rationale, opaque sampling, unstable evaluative design, measuring instruments of questionable validity, opportunistic use of scores transformed by standardization, reverential confidence in statistical significance, an absence of substantively significant statistics centered on the magnitudes of effects, a problematic presentation of findings and questionable implications drawn from the findings for educational norms and practice”.

The OECD itself has admitted that “large variation in single country ranking positions is likely” because of the methods it uses.

Going forward

Conceding that the results were not where she wanted Scotland’s education system to be, Nicola Sturgeon maintained, however that the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is the “right way forward”. She also highlighted her government’s commitment to acting on the recommendations contained in the OECD’s earlier review of the system, in which the CfE was described in positive terms, with the caveat that the government must be ‘bold and innovative’ in order to achieve its potential. Given the First Minister’s stated determination to improve the education system’s performance, this is advice that would seem logical to follow.

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Scottish Learning Festival 2016: excellence and equity for all

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by Stacey Dingwall

Last Wednesday, I attended the first day of the annual Scottish Learning Festival. Launched in 2000 as Scottish Education and Teaching with Technology (SETT), the two day event run by Education Scotland regularly attracts thousands of visitors from the education landscape in Scotland and beyond.

Promoting excellence and equity for all

The theme of this year’s event was promoting excellence and equity for all through:

  • School leadership and improvement
  • Assessing children’s progress and parental engagement
  • Teacher professionalism
  • Performance information

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has made education the priority for her government, telling education leaders earlier this year that they could “judge” her on the success of her policies to close the attainment gap in Scotland.  Despite improvements in Scottish school standards, an attainment gap persists, with pupils in more affluent areas twice as likely to gain a Higher than their peers from deprived areas. Sturgeon’s priority is to ensure that kids in Scotland grow up with the belief that academic success is achieved through talent and hard work, rather than based on the area in which they live.

Opening keynote: John Swinney

The festival’s opening keynote address was delivered by John Swinney, the recently appointed Education Secretary. Swinney stated his aim to “declutter” Scottish education. This is to be achieved by replacing the current mandatory requirement for unit assessment at National 5 and Higher levels with enhanced course assessment. Swinney explained that the aim of this was to reduce teachers’ workload around assessments, and suggested that teachers must also take additional steps themselves to reduce their workload. In the wake of this announcement, the EIS teaching union agreed to consider suspending their planned industrial action over teacher workloads.

Swinney also launched the inaugural Digital Schools Awards at the festival, which aim to promote, recognise and encourage best practice use of digital technology in primary schools. Prior to the event, the education secretary spoke of the importance of supporting Scotland’s digital sector by developing the skills and confidence of learners, and pointed to evidence that technology use in the classroom can enhance learning and teaching, and lead to improved educational outcomes for pupils.

Improving schools in Scotland: an OECD perspective

The first afternoon session I attended was presented by Chris Graham from the Scottish Government Curriculum Unit, and focused on the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD’s) 2015 review of education policy, practice and leadership in Scotland. Chris explained the background to the review, which was commissioned by the Scottish Government to:

  • Highlight key impacts of the approach taken to developing the curriculum to date
  • Analyse key aspects of education policy and practice in Scotland, and integrate insights from PISA and other evidence from different countries/regions
  • Highlight areas where further change or development could add value to an ongoing programme of educational improvement

The review made 12 recommendations, across the headings of quality and equity in Scottish schools; decision-making and governance for the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE); schooling, teachers and leadership; and assessment, evaluation and the CfE. A particular point that the OECD team made was that they didn’t believe that current activities around equity were as well aligned as they could be, and suggested that more should be done in terms of sharing evidence of ‘what works’ from individual interventions across the board. While the OECD did not specifically evaluate the CfE itself, the team did suggest that a new “narrative” be developed around it in order to clarify its scope – and perhaps even rename it. They were positive about the CfE overall however, but emphasised the need for the government to be bold and innovative in order to achieve its potential.

Chris also highlighted a range of measures that have been implemented since the report was published, some of which were under way when the OECD were carrying out their review. These include the expansion of the Scottish Attainment Challenge to secondary schools, and the launch of the National Improvement Framework and Delivery Plan for Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education. Chris described these developments as relevant to the recommendations made by the OECD team, and sees the next steps to be taken as currently an “open conversation”.

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Inverclyde Attainment Challenge

The final session I attended looked at the experience of Aileymill Primary School in Inverclyde with the Scottish Attainment Challenge. This initiative was launched in February 2015 by the First Minister in order to bring a greater sense of urgency in achieving equity in educational outcomes in Scotland. Aileymill, along with five other schools in the area, was awarded Challenge funding in August last year in an attempt to bridge the gap between pupils from deprived and more affluent areas in Inverclyde.

The session featured presentations from Aileymill’s headteacher Catriona Miller and Marie Pye from Barnardo’s, who worked with the school to provide a dedicated family support worker and implement plans for families who were struggling with issues such as poor attendance. Catriona spoke of the extent of some of the issues facing the pupils in her school, where 70% of the roll falls into the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) categories 1 and 2.

Two key things that emerged from Catriona and Maria’s presentations were the importance of establishing trust to the success of the partnership between the school and Barnardo’s, and the need to develop a sustainable model to support pupils and their families due to the limited availability of funding. Also key was the relationship-based approach employed, not only to their partnership, but to the support they provide to pupils and their families. It was really inspiring to listen to how much of an impact the funding has made in Aileymill, where parents who had been previously completely disconnected from their child’s education are now engaging with both the school and social work, and there are pupils whose attendance has increased from 23% to 80% within a year.


You can read more about the 2016 Scottish Learning Festival here. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

‘High quality and equitable outcomes for all’ – highlights from the Scottish Learning Festival 2015

By Rebecca Jackson

“High quality and equitable outcomes for all”  – that was the theme of this year’s Scottish Learning Festival held last week at the SECC in Glasgow. A mix of academic and policy based seminars, converged with practitioner based learning during the session on Wednesday.

Out of a packed schedule we chose to attend the launch of a new initiative to encourage more STEM teachers; information on the Scottish Attainment Challenge, delivered by Education Scotland and the Scottish Government; and a promotion of employment partnership learning, showing how schools and colleges can engage more with local business to provide opportunities for students.

A fundamental commitment of the Scottish Government

The keynote speech on Wednesday was delivered by Angela Constance MSP, Minister for Education at the Scottish Government. In her address, she stressed the importance of the key themes of the conference, which were collaboration, best practice and ensuring that no child in Scotland should be unable to fulfil their potential at school because of their background or their ability to pay.

Scottish education she said, would be “driven by evidence of ‘what works’ “ and “education in Scotland must be about ability to learn, not ability to pay, at all levels” and that this was a fundamental commitment on the part of the Scottish Government.

She also launched a new initiative aimed at getting more STEM teachers into the teaching system in Scotland. Teachers, she said, were key not only to teaching but to inspiring students to pursue subjects to a higher level.

She awarded the Robert Owen Award for an Inspiring Educator to Professor Graham Donaldson, the man behind Teaching Scotland’s future report on the education of Scotland’s teachers.

Angela Constance MSP addresses the conference. Rebecca Jackson, 2015

Angela Constance MSP addresses the conference. Rebecca Jackson, 2015

Tackling the attainment gap: the Scottish Attainment Challenge           

The Scottish Attainment Challenge was promoted as an accelerator of change, building on what has already been done in Scotland and using core values and agreed outcomes to create a system which takes a uniquely Scottish approach. The focus is on 4 key areas, and is delivered by a three way framework which uses a national hub, inter authority collaboration and support and the Scottish Attainment Fund.

The four key areas are:

  • Collaboration for improvement
  • High quality teaching and learning
  • Linking with family and community
  • Supporting nurture and well-being.

Speakers in this seminar emphasised that in Scotland, policy needs to be driven by what works. The challenge, they said, could not be delivered in isolation. Kevin Helman from Stirling and Clackmannan provided a local authority perspective. He highlighted the role of head teachers sharing best practice among schools.

The Scottish Attaniment Challenge outlined in Stirling and Clackmannan. Rebecca Jackson, 2015

The Scottish Attaniment Challenge outlined in Stirling and Clackmannan. Rebecca Jackson, 2015

The Girls in Energy Programme

Employment partnerships between schools and businesses could be a key way to promote vocational learning and encourage STEM subjects in schools. We’ve written before on this blog about the need to build STEM skills in the UK and especialy the importance of providing girls with STEM role models.

It was encouraging therefore to hear in another seminar session about the Girls in Energy programme, an Aberdeenshire based project between Mintlaw Academy and Shell.

The project provides a useful blueprint which could be recreated across Scotland. The programme combines:

  • blended learning, of academic and vocational qualifications (2 HNC’s and 1SVQ level 2);
  • industrial visits;
  • a 2 week placement.
Girls in Energy programme. Rebecca Jackson, 2015

Girls in Energy programme. Rebecca Jackson, 2015

There was an emphasis on how the scheme boosted employability skills, including interview technique, presentation skills and communicating with others, equipping the girls involved with practical skills valued by employers.

Practitioners and students who have been through the scheme were keen to stress that the scheme could easily be recreated if strong relationships between education and industry/business are forged. They highlighted the potential in engineering, construction and other industries which could follow the same outline as their model.

All that is good about Scottish education

The conference highlighted all that is good about the Scottish education sector. The stalls and exhibition space were filled with people who are passionate about providing a better, more equal and well-rounded education for children in Scotland.

However the conference also emphasised the core values of what academics and practitioners feel  is needed to drive education forward in the future – an understanding and sharing of best practice and resources, and the ability to integrate multiple aspects of learning to create a better experience for teachers, local authorities and children alike.


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