First, I should say that the Sydney Morning Herald doesn’t do all that bad a job covering school education issues. However, I did say “Hey hang on! That has to be nonsense…” when I read this:
The proportion of students studying a foreign language for the Higher School Certificate is at a historic low and less than a fifth of what it was during the 1950s, new data shows.
The figures underline the challenge facing the new Abbott government, which has set a target of 40 per cent of high school students studying a foreign language within a decade and called for greater engagement with Asia.
Only 8 per cent of the more than 75,000 students enrolled in the HSC this year will sit a foreign language test when the written exams begin on October 14, down from more than 50 per cent in the ’50s.
OK, for starters there was no HSC in the 1950s. The HSC started in 1967: I know because I taught the first one at Cronulla High that year! Before then was the Leaving Certificate at the end of five years of high school. Most students left at the end of what we now call Year 9. In 1955, the year I started high school – and that’s me in 1955 on the right — only 16.6% of boys and 12.8% of girls in NSW completed to the Leaving Certificate exam. OK, let’s say that most of THOSE may have been doing French, German or Latin. I am not sure of the exact numbers there. In my own school, Sydney Boys High, I think everyone going to the Leaving did a foreign language, usually French though one class did German. But of those who had any post-Primary education in the 1950s, what percentage completed High School while retaining study of a foreign language? The number must have been very small. So I would challenge that “more than 50 per cent” figure! Over 50% of Leaving Certificate candidates probably, but Leaving Certificate students were such a tiny minority compared with HSC Year 12 students in 2013.
Even so, the state of foreign language learning in NSW in 2013 is cause for concern. Currently 8% of NSW HSC students study a foreign language. See also podcast Students Studying HSC Languages on the Decline on 2GB at the NSW Modern Languages Teachers’ Association site.
Tony Abbott and his rather revolting Education Minister have both done a bit of a “no child will be living in poverty” on this one, pledging that they want “40 per cent of high school students to be studying a foreign language within a decade” – a laudable aim. Note the wording does not however say “final year students”. Even so, Christopher Pyne has acknowledged the 40% aspiration may not happen. Speaking at an Independent Education Union (read “private schools”) Conference – where else? – Mr Pyne managed to muddy matters with his usual young fogey arch-reactionary blather:
”We’ll get to the 40 per cent of year 10s, I think, sooner than we’ll get to the 40 per cent of year 11s and 12s but we want to give it a go,” he told an Independent Education Union conference in Canberra on Thursday. Mr Pyne said foreign language study should be encouraged but he appeared to muddy his message by hailing Australia’s monolingual status as one of its ”great strengths”.
”We speak English and that’s given us a great advantage in terms of economic opportunities around the world and being much more simple to administer than, say, a country like India, which has, I think, 600 different languages,” he said.
In his first speech since becoming a minister, Mr Pyne told the IEU he would improve consultation with the non-government school sector, be less secretive and ensure the Coalition was ”the best friend teachers have ever had”…
I rather doubt that.
In NSW right now it appears all Year 7-8 students:
…must study at least 100 hours in one language, to be completed over one continuous 12-month period. The 100-hour course must cover the Stage 4 outcomes and content of the chosen language syllabus, and must be studied between Years 7–10, but preferably in Years 7–8.
The Board has developed syllabuses in the following languages for the mandatory course:
• Aboriginal Languages
• Classical Greek
• Modern Greek
When students have completed the mandatory 100 hours of language study, they may continue the study of that language as an elective for the School Certificate and/or choose to study another language.
Another Herald story featured this graphic:
Now of course this is what happens when many more students stay until Years 11 and 12 than used to, and where what once was the province of TAFE has entered the HSC arena. And not a bad thing either, since the thought that all the 17-year-olds in the state should be doing the kinds of courses that the minority did who sought the Leaving Certificate and Matriculation in the 1950s is plainly absurd. Ancient History’s popularity remains an interesting phenomenon.
I could rave on more, but won’t. Among my sources have been: Developing the Wyndham Scheme: A Case Study of Geography Education in NSW, Australia (PDF) by James Leigh 2005; Government Schools in NSW from 1848: Facts and Figures; The Leaving Certificate in New South Wales from 1939 to 1962 (PDF) by Stephen Curtis; and I note a book, Aspects of the Decline in Foreign Language Enrolments in New South Wales High Schools by D J Crukshank, University of Newcastle 1974. Yes, 1974.
See also a slideshare by Ken Cruikshank, a keynote presentation at the Modern Language Teachers Association of NSW Conference in March 2013.