HC Deb 26 April 2001 vol 367 cc436-8
9. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

If he will make a statement on schools with attached specialist language colleges. [157916]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

In May 1997, there were 181 specialist schools and there are now 536, with an ambition to make that 650 by this September. Some 99 are language colleges.

Dr. Iddon

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Little Lever school in my constituency, which achieved language college status and is already teaching five languages? The Japanese Government have funded a full-time teacher of Japanese and 15 Japanese women visited the school recently, dressed in national costume, and talked about their culture to the whole school. The teaching of Russian in the school has also prompted the art department to exchange its art work with a school in Russia. An international dimension has been spread across the whole curriculum of the school and out into the wider community.

Mr. Blunkett

I very much wish to congratulate the school. I have a list of the languages taught—French, German, Spanish, Urdu, Japanese, Russian, Italian and Cantonese, as well as starter courses in other languages. I only wish that I had been at the school when the Japanese visitors came, so that I could have enjoyed their costume and dancing. I congratulate the Japanese Government on their excellent initiative in funding the first year of the post and I hope that we can develop that with other embassies and countries.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

What consideration has the Secretary of State given to making German rather than French the main foreign language taught in schools? One can spend four years at school learning French but find it very difficult to achieve an authentic accent, whereas after just 18 months of learning German even Germans can think one is a German, which is very satisfying. Teaching German also provides grammar, which has not been taught properly in schools since we stopped teaching Latin. Does he agree that die Zukunft ist Deutsch und nicht Französisch—the future is German, not French?

Mr. Blunkett

No, I do not.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

I enjoyed that exchange and the Secretary of State will know that I, too, take an interest in specialist and language colleges. Given that the criteria for specialist schools are now so broad that it is in practice possible to be a selective school in virtually anything except one or two important academic subjects, and given that the Prime Minister was reported to have told the Association of Teachers and Lecturers recently that—in contrast to the Secretary of State's Green Paper—there seemed to be no remaining limits on the number of specialist schools, I invite him to give an indication of the longest timetable for implementation of the specialist schools programme. Can he tell the House whether any comprehensive schools will be left as what the Prime Minister's spokesperson so characteristically, inelegantly and grossly unfairly described as bog standard?

Mr. Blunkett

I have comprehensively dealt with the last point on more than one occasion. The hon. Gentleman made a Freudian slip—I think that the record will show that he used the word "selective" when he meant "specialism". There is no limit on the number of specialisms or the number of specialist schools. They are comprehensive. Only 5 per cent. of specialist schools operating in 2000 retained some historic element of selection. Of the rest, less than 7 per cent. admitted children on the basis of aptitude.

Specialist schools are non-selective comprehensive schools. Professor Jesson's research showed that 53 per cent. of pupils in those comprehensive specialist schools obtained five or more A to C grades compared with 43 per cent. of pupils in similar intake comprehensive schools. That shows that the specialist school programme works in the interests of raising standards as well as outreach to the wider community.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

Does the Secretary of State agree that language learning should not be seen simply as a utilitarian exercise for those wishing to communicate with non-English speakers, but as something that can enrich a person's entire educational and cultural experience? In that context, does he support schemes such as Sheffield's multilingual city initiative, which seeks to spread language learning throughout the community? Sheffield nursery schools have very high rates of language learning which children then take with them throughout their lives.

Mr. Blunkett

The earlier a child can engage with other languages, the more successful that will be. I commend that and many other schemes that have developed, not only language tasters for nursery schools but those providing links with other parts of the world using information technology, including the multilingual programme that I have commended in the city of Sheffield. My only regret is that I learned a language called Esperanto at school. It was a very good idea at the time, but it got me into certain difficulties at the age of 16 when I used it in Paris.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

Is it not the case that specialist schools under this Government are very different from those under the previous Government, in that they must ensure that a third of their budget is shared with the local community? In addition, the Government are promoting joint bids, so that two high schools can bid jointly for specialist status. Specialist schools are encouraged to share their resources with the community with after-school clubs and so on, so that instead of the winner-takes-all approach of the previous Government, our specialist vision is about sharing resources and improving diversity throughout our communities.

Mr. Blunkett

A number of joint bids have already been approved. I want to see many more, particularly in areas such as my hon. Friend's constituency, where there are two schools within one small community. I want the collaborative approach to the bidding process to be extended so that schools talk with other schools and the education authority about which would be most appropriate for a particular specialism, and they work it through with their primary school feeders and the other secondary schools in the area. I want to ensure that they then reach out to the community so that the specialism is available to all, including adult learners.

Forward to