Select Committee on European Union Fortieth Report


Letter from Bill Rammall MP, Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, Department for Education and Skills to the Chairman

  I am writing to respond to your letter of 4 November 2005[198] and to update you on the progress of negotiations on the Communication on the proposed European Indicator of Language Competence.

  The Communication was not discussed at the Education Council on 15 November. Negotiations began in the official-level working group in December and Ministers held an exchange of views at the Education Council on 23 February. The UK also tabled a position paper at that Council, which I attach for your information (not printed). I also attach the latest version of Conclusions on the Commission's proposal which were drawn up by the Austrian Presidency in January (not printed). Coreper will discuss this compromise text on 3 May, before the Communication and Conclusions are tabled for political agreement at the Education Council on 19 May.

  The Government agrees that it is important to improve language competence in the UK, so that more people are able to participate fully in the global economy as multilingual and culturally aware citizens and employees. However we have ensured during negotiations that the wording of the Communication and the accompanying Conclusions make clear that it is for Member States to decide the content and priorities of their education systems, including the language curriculum. We have also secured a change to the wording of the last paragraph of the Conclusions, so that it now invites Member States to take all necessary steps to establish, rather than implement, the Indicator.

  Your letter stated that the Select Committee shares the Government's view that more detailed professional examination of the proposals for the Indicator is required to define organisational and resource implications before Member States can make a decision on implementation. This is particularly important to ensure that the exercise should not impose undue burdens on schools and pupils. I am pleased to report that this position has been supported by other Member States. The draft Conclusions now suggest that an advisory board composed of a representative of each Member State and one representative of the Council of Europe should be established as soon as possible to take forward further development work.

  The proposed role of the advisory board is set out on pages 6-7 of the draft Council Conclusions. It will report to the Commission by the end of 2006 on Member States' preferred arrangements for constructing and administrating the tests. Ministers will then take a decision on implementation at Education Council next year, perhaps in May.

  The advisory board will also produce a detailed proposal of the costs of participation for Member States, and discuss the timing of the survey. The UK has made clear that the testing period for the Indicator should not overlap with other international surveys, and have suggested a flexible testing "window" of 2009-11 which would allow Member States to choose the most convenient year for administering the tests.

  The Communication originally specified 15 as the age for testing. However the Conclusions now suggest a grade/level-based sample rather than strictly age-based, as this would be easier to administer and less disruptive for schools. The UK supports this approach as specifying age 15 could mean having to test across two different school years. We support the end of the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) level 2 as the point of testing in both foreign languages. This would allow us to obtain a representative sample of pupils who are all Year 9 (ages 13-14) in England. This is also at the end of Key Stage 3 when learning a foreign language is still compulsory in England. However some other Member States prefer the end of ISCED level 3 (equivalent to ages 17-18 in England) in order to have a large enough sample of testees with two foreign languages. The compromise text in the draft Conclusions currently allows Member States to choose to gather data in the second foreign language from pupils during ISCED level 3 if a second foreign language is not taught before the end of ISCED 2, which the UK can support as it would still allow us to decide when to test the second foreign language.

  I will of course be writing to Parliament immediately before and after the May Education Council to report on the progress of all the dossiers on the agenda, including the Communication and Conclusions on the European Indicator of Language Competence.

20 April 2006

Letter from Bill Rammell MP to the Chairman

  My officials have sent you the latest version of this document which was discussed at Coreper on 3 May. I can report that no amendments were made and we are content with the Coreper texts.

9 May 2006

Letter from the Chairman to Bill Rammell MP

  Thank you for your letters dated 20 April and 9 May which were considered by Sub-Committee G on 11 May.

  We are glad to see the progress reported in your letters as reflected in the latest version of the Conclusions and note that this text was cleared by COREPER on 3 May without amendment.

  We are particularly pleased that the amended text appears to meet our own wish, as set out in my letter to you dated 4 November 2005, for more thorough professional examination of these proposals. We agree that the plan to set up the proposed Advisory Board to make recommendations by the end of this year, with a view to possible decisions at the Education Council in the first half of next year, is a sensible way forward.

  We are therefore content to release the scrutiny reserve to enable the Government to support the proposed political agreement at the Education Council on 19 May. That is on the understanding that the text remains unchanged and that any fresh proposals developed following the recommendations of the Advisory Council will be submitted for Parliamentary scrutiny in due course.

  We look forward to receiving your report on the outcome of the Education Council meeting and to discussing the implications at our next informal meeting with Judith Grant and Lid King on 25 May.

12 May 2006

198   Correspondence with Ministers, 45th Report of Session 2005-06, HL Paper 243, pp 677-678. Back

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