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Baroness Neuberger: My Lords, it is with the greatest pleasure that I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, and to congratulate him on his excellent maiden speechone being made, as he told us, some 35 years on from his original maiden speech in another place. We all know that the noble Lord is a power in the land. He is now steering the British Council, on which I serve as a member, with consummate elegance as chairman. It was tremendous to hear him speak about life-long learning, to which the British Council is so committed and to which my noble friend Lady Thomas has already paid tribute.
The noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, will give us enormous insights into the workings of the European Union and of the Commission, and he has already shared much of his wisdom with us today. His record as an EU Commissioner is superb. I know that I speak for noble Lords on all sides of the House when I say that we look forward very much to the contribution we know he is going to make, and we are longing for him to share with the House his wide experience in general and his specific his knowledge of Europe as a Commissioner and of the wider EU, along with his passion for life-long learning that has emerged so strongly today. He will bring great lustre to this place and I know that we all look forward to hearing many contributions from him.
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I also thank my noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood for what she has already said in this debate, and for her skill in chairing Sub-Committee G of the European Union Committee. I must tell your Lordships how much I enjoyed being part of that committee for this inquiry. I started off as a new Peer, and it was fascinating to watch how the committee worked, as well as to see how a great deal of evidence, both oral and written, could be absorbed by the committee and its wonderful Clerk, Gordon Baker, and his staff in such a short time. We had wonderful special advisers as well.
Others have dealt with other aspects of the report. However, I was left with one overriding concern at the end of the hearings and having read the evidence. Time and again we heard evidence from people involved in one or another of the four programmes of exchange in the integrated action programmes for life-long learning: Erasmus, Leonardo, Grundtvig and Comenius. We heard real passion and enthusiasm from teachers in schools, in further and higher education and in some of the organisations involved.
It was apparent, however, that this enthusiasm was present despite the incredible bureaucracy, delays in being paid, difficulties in covering administration costs and other factors that make participation hard. This is when we in this country want to encourage language learning and exchanges, and want to get our schoolchildren and our student populations, not to mention their teachers, to have a more international outlook. I can say this with all the compliments to the British Council that were made in all the written and oral evidence that we got.
I shall give your Lordships some examples. Marguerite Hogg, European projects co-ordinator at Thomas Danby College in Leeds, raised many issues with us. She said social security was one of the issues, the financing of language tuition another. The situation of full-time students who claim the educational maintenance allowance for their time abroad, when they could be penalised for being away from their host institutions, is another issue that people raised.
Ray Kirtley, from the international resources centre for schools and colleges at the University of Hull, argued that one of his main interests is particularly how we can help local education authorities to encourage schools in more disadvantaged areas to become involved. Another enthusiast, he finds the bureaucracy appalling and, as he made clear, unnecessary.
It is no surprise that our 14th recommendation on the Comenius programme was that,
"the Commission should look more closely at what needs to be done to encourage greater awareness and participation in Comenius and to remove unnecessary . . . obstacles which impede effective participation and place unfair burdens on the dedicated organisers of these programmes, especially in smaller schools".
The Government have promised in their response that they will carefully review the revised version of EU financial regulations, which impose standard processes on applicants and institutions, even where the level of funding is comparatively small.
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What the Government do not reflect in their response, however, is what was so apparent to the sub-committee: that there is huge dedication on the part of teachers and organisers of these programmes, and that some of these, in the smaller schools particularly, face real difficulties. The least they should expect from the UK Government is recognition of their dedication, rather than a bland statement of the Government's commitmentone shared, I am sure, by the whole Houseto reduce bureaucracy.
I could go on, but time is short. We need an assurance from the Government that they will do more to recognise the difficulties faced by people trying to organise children, young people and, indeed, older people taking part in these programmes, and that they will recognise that those who do so, against all these difficulties, are a form of social entrepreneur. Social entrepreneurship is something this Government hold dear. Will the Minister reflect on that? Could not more be done to help those organising such exchanges against the odds? Perhaps they could be rewarded in a variety of ways: financial, time off in lieu, or the sort of recognition we also give to head teachers these daysthat is, honours.
Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I too welcome the spirited speech of my noble friend Lord Kinnock and congratulate him. We look forward to having him as a colleague.
I am delighted that we are holding this debate. I was privileged to sit on the European Union Committee under the able chairing of the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, and with colleagues who were knowledgeable and committed.
I shall speak today about a specific aspect of life-long learning; that is, the teaching and learning of foreign languages, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and others. The noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, touched on structures in foreign language learning.
I suppose that I should declare an interest as a graduate in, and former teacher of, modern languages, although that was some time ago. The issue of teaching and learning languages attracted much press attention following our report. A great deal of that attention was critical. I want the Minister to give some reassurances that the Government are dedicated to improving the state of modern language life-long learning.
In preparing for today's debate, I consulted reports from the DfES; the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority; Ofsted; and independent organisations such as the Association for Language Learning, the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and the National Advisory Centre on Early Language Learning. Those reports make for some disturbing reading.
I am concerned particularly about the growing gap between state and independent sector schools in language teaching. In only 30 per cent of state schools is a foreign language compulsory at key stage 4; in 70 per cent it is
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optional. Languages are compulsory in 97 per cent of independent schools at key stage 4 and optional in only 3 per cent. I wonder what we can do about this.
The Nuffield Languages Inquiry points out that while we speak a universal language,
"in a smart and competitive world, exclusive reliance on English leaves the UK vulnerable and dependent on the linguistic competence and goodwill of others. It puts young people at a growing disadvantage in the recruitment market".
The report points out that while there have been positive developments, in 2000 at least, the Government had no coherent strategy and,
"a patchwork of often unrelated initiatives. There is no rational path of learning from primary school to university and beyond".
I think that we have tried to develop a rational path and to pull initiatives together, but I would welcome the Minister's comments.
In 2004, Stephen Twigg, who was then Parliamentary Under-Secretary for State in the Department for Education and Skills, spoke about the national language strategy, Languages for All: Languages for Life. He recommitted the Government to delivering opportunities for all key stage pupils to learn a foreign language by the end of the decade and to increasing the number of people who study foreign languages in further and higher education and in work-based learning. Investment of £10 million per year was promised and a National Director for Languages appointed. What progress have we made on this?
We clearly have an awareness of the problem and good intentions. Last year, the DfES report, Languages For All: From Strategy To Delivery, noted progress, as did the report, A Boost for Modern Foreign Languages. In addition, research on foreign language provision at primary and middle schools and at university is going on. Pathfinder schemes have been set up under the National Advisory Centre on Early Language Learning. It was useful to see a section entitled "Transforming our Language Capability" in the Government's 2004 education strategy, Putting the World into World Class Education, which was brought up in evidence to our committee.
However, the UK Socrates-Erasmus Council is critical of the Government's lack of support for their programmes and lack of clarity about strategy for the programmes and,
This is disappointing. People should have the opportunity to live a language by spending time in suitable programmes abroad.
Of course, languages have to be well taught. I was interested to read an article produced by the National Centre for Languages on approaches to teaching. It considered the language-learning process in the common European framework of reference. It recommended three things: that learners are exposed to a rich input of the target language; that they have an opportunity to interact in the language; and that they are motivated to learn. We need to consider imaginative approaches to language teaching, such as the use of new technologies, which might inspire both children and adults. In schools,
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curriculum time and staff expertise are essential. We frequently lack both. It seems that there is a mindset about language learning in the UK that can be either positive or negative. We must make it positive. The programmes that we discussed in the committee support the positive and need to be encouraged.
The Government response to the committee's report is encouraging in relation to action required by the Commission, but more temperate where responsibility for action lies with the Government. That responsibility needs to be re-examined if we are serious about modern languages.
The 2004 Qualifications and Curriculum Authority report and Ofsted reports questioned the priority given by LEAs to the funding of modern languages and their fears about fragmented provision. Although it is encouraging to see the Government's support for language learning in theory, we must focus on how that translates into action locally, especially in state schools. We also need to focus on how languages are best taught and by whom. The evidence on life-long learning given to the committee was fascinating and provided insights into how improvements can be made. I hope that we take note and look forward to hearing the Minister's response.
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