Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Foreign Language Learning

2.47 p.m.

Lord Quirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, our languages strategy outlines ways in which we will encourage lifelong learning in languages through more diverse provision in secondary schools, including work-related learning and enhanced outreach roles for specialist language colleges, through increasing numbers of specialist non-teachers, through increasing numbers of language students in further and higher education and through our work with regional languages networks to promote languages for business. Our recognition system will also help to broaden participation for all ages.

Lord Quirk: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that degree of reassurance and I am glad that she has mentioned the large and growing number of schools which are specifically funded to teach foreign languages. Given the widespread dismay at the prospect of reduced language learning in secondary schools generally, do the Government expect that

21 Jan 2003 : Column 555

specialist language colleges should teach all their pupils at least one foreign language to at least GCSE level?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am not sure that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, about dismay. Many people recognise that the spreading of our language learning across through the primary years is a better solution than a concentration in a small number of years, at a time in their career when some of our pupils do not see it as a way of enhancing their opportunities. Specialist language colleges will be teaching languages. Within our proposals it is for any school to decide that it wishes to retain compulsion on modern foreign languages. That is the school's right. The specialist language colleges offer more than two languages to their pupils. Their opportunities will be spread not only to neighbouring schools, but also to primary schools.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, given the importance of welcoming visitors to this country in their own language, will my noble friend assure us that the proposed new vocational courses for tourism, which I warmly welcome, will have a modern languages component?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, we certainly expect that that vocational course will provide the opportunity for students to study modern foreign languages, for precisely the reasons that my noble friend gave.

Lord Watson of Richmond: My Lords, does the Minister consider it likely that the numbers of young people over the age of 14 learning foreign languages will increase or decrease? If the latter is the case, given the shortage of foreign language teachers, are we not kick-starting a downward spiral? There will be fewer teachers because there are fewer pupils and then, again, fewer teachers because there are fewer pupils, and so on.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, it is interesting to contemplate kick-starting a downward spiral, but I take the noble Lord's point.

On the specific question about whether the numbers will go up or down, I expect that the number of students taking modern foreign languages will drop initially, because students are already being disapplied for modern foreign languages. Some students, given the breadth of the 14 to 19 curriculum that we are offering, will opt not to take modern foreign languages at that stage. The noble Lord knows and supports the fact that we are developing a languages strategy from early years through life-long learning. We want to ensure that the young person who might drop languages at that stage in favour of other subjects has the opportunity to pick up the languages again.

The vacancy rate of teachers of modern foreign languages has dropped from 1.5 per cent to 1.2 per cent. There are 190 modern foreign languages vacancies in maintained secondary schools. Our

21 Jan 2003 : Column 556

ambition is to ensure that we have fewer vacancies and that teachers come in through the traditional graduate route, the assistant programme and in other ways to support language learning.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I will not bore the Minister by making continental analogies, but why are Her Majesty's Government depriving children on vocational courses of language teaching, when vocational and sandwich courses in Germany and France include languages?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, it is not our intention to deprive children of language learning and vocational courses. Indeed, we want to ensure that through the new accreditation system there is an ability to take language grades, analogous to music grades. That will enable young people to continue with language learning, perhaps not through a GCSE route, if that is more appropriate. As I have said many times, they may pick up that language learning later.

Our colleagues in Europe take views based on their experiences and the need to study languages in different ways. We are in constant contact and discussion with them about how best to ensure that our languages strategy is appropriate for our role in Europe.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, although the learning of foreign languages in this country is important, the most important thing is to continue the trend of speaking English all over the world, which is of much greater advantage to us?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I would simply point out that 60 per cent of British trade is with non-English speaking countries. I believe that that answers the noble Lord's question.

Lord St John of Fawsley: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her encouraging words. Do they apply to Latin?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, Latin is not a modern foreign language as I understand it. However, speaking as the mother of a child who has chosen to study Latin, I recognise that for some children the opportunities to study Latin and ancient Greek are important. They are not specifically covered in a modern foreign languages strategy, but I recognise their relevance.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I should perhaps declare an interest as a former teacher of modern foreign languages, including Latin. Will the Minister expand on what she said about the teaching of modern foreign languages in primary schools? If we get that right, things will necessarily follow positively. Will she also tell us how, in practice, primary schools will receive help for teachers who teach modern foreign languages to children?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I could spend a great deal of time discussing this, but I shall be brief and

21 Jan 2003 : Column 557

refer my noble friend to the languages document. Our ambition is that at key stage 2 there will be an opportunity for every child to learn a modern foreign language and to study a language outside the European Union languages, if that is possible. We shall be enhancing the opportunities for those who are qualified as bilingual or trilingual speakers to be able to take a qualification and support teachers in primary schools.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, how on earth are the Government going to achieve their language strategy when the cohort of young people competent in languages is bound to decrease? As the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, there will no longer be a requirement to learn a foreign language in our secondary schools as a result of a policy announced only today—outside Parliament, not to Parliament.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an important point. It is critical to understand that the group of children who may decide not to pursue modern foreign languages are the group who, I would estimate, are pretty unlikely to consider taking them beyond GCSE to A-level. We have little evidence that points in another direction.

It is important—and here I believe the noble Baroness and I would agree—to ensure that young people have the opportunity and motivation to learn languages at an earlier age and for them to have a spread of languages available to learn and to be able to continue with or return to those languages at a later date. In enhancing the opportunities in primary schools, one of our aspirations—and I believe that it is an ambition that we will fulfil—is to increase the number who have opportunities to be primary teachers who are specialists in language. That has not been open to them before.

Lord Elton: My Lords, does the Minister accept that making announcements of policy outside Parliament means that the opinions of parliamentarians in either House are not reported in the press? Does she regret that the announcement was so made?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the specific issue relating to modern foreign languages was referred to in the languages document that we published in December. The 14 to 19 strategy was published today, and I shall pass on the noble Lord's views to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, what provisions will the Government make to attract highly qualified graduate teachers into the classroom, where they are paid a relatively low amount, if there are excessive top-up fees of 3,000 per year per person?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page