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Baroness Sharples: My Lords, at what stage do children begin to learn foreign languages?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I have visited nurseries where children are already learning foreign languages. Recently I visited a nursery in Islington. The bilingual and trilingual nursery nurses are strongly encouraged to converse with the children in their languages. Indeed, the children too are encouraged to speak in languages other than English. I believe that those children are being given an enhanced opportunity.

Within the primary education sector, some 20 per cent of schools now offer a foreign language, usually a European language and most commonly French. Thus language education provision begins at the outset of education.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, there is a chronic shortage in our schools of teachers of modern foreign languages. How will it be possible to expand the teaching of foreign languages without providing more teachers? How successful have the initiatives been over the past year in attracting more teachers into this sector?

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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, currently 250 vacancies are recorded for full-time teachers of modern foreign languages. Almost all newly qualified teachers of modern foreign languages qualify through the PGCE. We know that applications and acceptances fell this year. Such students qualify for a £6,000 bursary during their course, as well as a £4,000 "golden hello" following their induction. In primary education, we have earmarked 100 teacher training places for French teachers who wish specifically to teach in that sector. The course includes time spent in a French institution. I have outlined some of the ways in which we are trying to enhance the teaching of modern foreign languages, but we recognise that the issue of shortages must be addressed.

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in spite of the increasingly widespread use of English, learning a foreign language is a vital component of understanding other cultures. Language is not purely a means of communicating with others or, indeed, of doing business with others? Now, perhaps more than at any other time, it is important to ensure that different cultures understand each other.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I do not believe that I could express those sentiments any better from the Dispatch Box. I agree entirely with the words of the noble Lord. It is extremely important that language is used to celebrate the diversity and multiculturalism of our nation. We must take the time and opportunity to celebrate that with our children, who often come into school speaking two or even three languages but do not then have an opportunity to speak other languages within the school. This matter should be looked at in the broadest possible manner.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the acquisition of languages opens closed minds, closed markets and closed cultures? Should we not promote English abroad and modern languages at home in order to double Britain's opportunity to be successful financially, commercially, culturally and diplomatically?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, most of our European partners have good track records in the promotion of English speaking within their own countries. Certainly in terms of promotion on a business level, we believe that the network of languages being set up in each English region, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will link learning to business needs, which is an important aspect of what the noble Lord suggests.

Viscount Falkland: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Lycee Francais Charles de Gaulle school--which was set up initially to encourage joint learning by anglophone and francophone students--because of the large influx of French people into London, has had to close its doors virtually to anglophones in order to, quite understandably, meet the French Government's

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need to satisfy their own taxpayers? That is a great shame. Could approaches be made to the French Government, through the French Embassy, to find some way of returning to the original aims?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, part of my work in chairing the working group and steering group that have come from the Nuffield inquiry is to work with embassies from European nations to find ways in which we can support each other. I shall be happy to look at this matter in that context.

Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, each year, hundreds of thousands of people come into this country from abroad, some of whom have little or no command of English. What are the Government doing to ensure that such people can learn English and communicate with the rest of us within the UK?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, there are a number of different ways. However, I shall need to write to the noble Lord to be explicit as this issue does not fall specifically within my remit.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that some years ago, when there was an even greater shortage of language teachers than there is today, a scheme was started under which peripatetic teachers went round to various schools? Is that scheme still in operation today?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the scheme to which the noble Lord refers is probably based upon the language assistance scheme, which noble Lords may remember. The scheme involves working with 30 partner countries. There has been a decline in the number of UK students participating. We are considering ways in which we can increase participation. There are currently 1,732 English language assistants abroad through reciprocal arrangements.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, is it not rather shocking that there are so many vacancies for language teachers? What are the Government doing to make being a language teacher more attractive to potential teachers?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I mentioned that we consider this to be an area of serious shortage. We offer bursaries, "golden hellos" and other incentives to enhance language teaching for those who wish to come into it. As noble Lords will know, we are looking at the writing-off of student loans, and people in this group will qualify for that. We are looking at financial incentives for those who wish to come into the profession. We are also ensuring that we make it an attractive way for people to be involved in teaching.

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Afghanistan: Air Attacks

2.53 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to avoid further non-combatant casualties from air attacks in Afghanistan.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, we very much regret any non-combatant casualties. We fully understand worries about possible injury to civilians, but while bin Laden remains at large the risk to innocent people throughout the world continues. Military action inevitably carries risks. It is impossible to eradicate these totally, but I can assure your Lordships that every possible care is taken to minimise civilian casualties by the most rigorous selection of military and terrorist targets.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, is it not the case that the American air force has probably killed more women and children than any other force in the world? Our association with this policy is in itself to be regretted. Is it not the case that the more non-combatants killed or injured, the stronger becomes the case for abandoning the current policy and returning to one of negotiation?

Lord Grocott: My Lords, when my noble friend refers to the slaughter of women and children, my mind--and I suspect the minds of most noble Lords--returns to the events of 11th September when any number of women and children, and other groups of innocent people, were slaughtered without mercy. Throughout the whole of this operation, that is the simple fact that needs to be remembered by everyone.

Lord Vivian: My Lords, while we on these Benches support the Government's objectives in Afghanistan, will they ensure that they continue to give great clarity to them? While I very much regret the horrors of war and the inevitable casualties that it brings, does the Minister agree that wars are not won without the appropriate weapons? To adopt any other measures would place our own Armed Forces in jeopardy and danger.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, I agree with the thrust of the question of the noble Lord, Lord Vivian. I should like to restate how important it is at this time that there is such support from the opposition parties in both Houses of Parliament. The noble Lord asked about the clarity of objectives. I can do no better than to remind the House of what the Secretary of State said at the press conference this morning, which many will have seen live. He said:

    "Our objectives are to bring the chief suspects behind the 11th September atrocities to account; to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan; and to prevent that country ever being used as a base for global terrorism again".

We can all say "Amen" to that.

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