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Beware ‘lazy typecasting’ of working-class pupils

20 May 2019 (TES)

The row over languages availability reveals the false assumptions made about pupils in poorer areas, says Gordon Cairns.

Earlier this month, the press reported that schools in some areas were less likely to offer modern languages due to the socioeconomic environment. Statistics showed that pupils in prosperous districts were more than twice as likely to sit a foreign language exam compared with those in more economically challenged neighbourhoods. However, these figures referred to England and contrasted affluent Kensington in London with Middlesbrough in the deprived North East.

Despite similar headlines in Scotland, the story is not the same. Looking at middle-class Jordanhill and working-class Drumchapel, there is no gap in the uptake of modern languages due to deprivation in Glasgow. So why were journalists so keen to report the comments of modern languages lecturer and author Francisco Valdera-Gil to the Scottish Parliament's Education and Skills Committee without doing a basic fact check?

I think the remarks, which Valdera-Gil has since apologised for, were seized upon in part because the story buys into an underlying snobbery about poverty and foreign languages that has existed in Scottish culture, probably since the industrial revolution. You hear it from those working in Castlemilk, jokingly referring to the housing scheme as “Chateaulait”, the irony in the contrast of the melodious French and the harsh reality. Modern languages teachers in all of Glasgow's outlying schemes must be sick of hearing, “Would you not be better trying to teach them English?”

Despite welcome progress in tackling racial and sexual stereotyping, there is still a lazy typecast of working-class lives being narrow and lacking culture, and so when someone from the Scottish Council of Deans of Education backs this up, then, of course, it will be latched on to. As if anyone from one of Glasgow’s housing schemes would have aspirations to travel, work for a company with foreign contacts or simply have an affinity for a different culture, so why bother teaching them another language?

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