HC Deb 14 March 2002 vol 381 cc1001-3
4. Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

What plans she has for the teaching of foreign languages. [40722]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis)

Our aspirations for language learning and teaching were set out in the pamphlet "Language Learning", published last month. One of those aspirations is to widen the opportunities for language learning in the primary sector. The pamphlet invited views from key stakeholders. Those views will inform our national strategy which we plan to publish in the autumn.

Mr. Randall

I thank the Minister for that reply. Which language should be the principal language taught in our schools, and why?

Mr. Lewis

I am not sure to which wing of the Conservative party the hon. Gentleman belongs in relation to Europe. Clearly, there would be automatic consensus on both sides of the House that the most important language that young people should learn in this country is English. The issue is then to ensure that the maximum number of pupils have the choice to study—and have access to—as many foreign languages as possible. That is why the Government's proposals to give primary school pupils, for the first time, a proper chance to have access to modern foreign languages are such an important development.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Does my hon. Friend agree that a large number of people welcome the Government's fresh thinking on foreign language teaching? Both the Green Paper and the "Language Learning" document refer to the innovation of teaching foreign languages at primary level. Will he take on board the fact that we must get right the methodology of teaching languages? During the past 30 to 50 years, we have seen a deterioration in language education in British schools. Surely we should look at some of the best practice worldwide. The Select Committee on Education and Skills recently visited the United States. Some of the innovative approaches to language learning at Stanford are revolutionary; I hope that my hon. Friend will consider them.

Mr. Lewis

That is absolutely right; there certainly should be more emphasis on spoken languages in primary schools. We have to ask ourselves some fundamental questions: for example, last year, why were about 36,000 pupils disapplied at 14 from modern foreign languages as part of the national curriculum? If we are not motivating and encouraging young people to take modern foreign languages, we are clearly getting something wrong; so it is right that we learn lessons from international experience in countries where modern foreign languages are popular with young people so that we can improve our teaching methodology in order to motivate and enthuse them about the importance of learning modern foreign languages, which are essential in a global economy.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

We are all grateful to the Minister for confirming that the Government's policy on language teaching has descended into utter confusion. Why is it important, according to the recent Green Paper, that languages should be taught in primary schools and to adult learners, while it is also apparently Government policy that language in secondary schools should be optional, like the teaching of Darwinian evolution? What resources will the Government provide for the teaching of languages in primary schools? What is their strategy for providing the extra 18,000 language teachers who will be needed if there is to be one in each of our primary schools? Is not the Government's strategy on language teaching just another example of what Lord Hattersley derided on Monday as the declaratory arm of Government in action?

Mr. Lewis

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that constructive contribution to the debate. The issue is straightforward: most of those who believe strongly that young people should have access to modern foreign languages have believed for many years that we need to start in the primary sector if we are to get it right. The Conservative Government did nothing to encourage that. We are ensuring that young people will continue to study a modern foreign language between the ages of 11 and 14 and will be entitled to continue with that beyond the age of 14, but we do not believe that it is right to force young people, against their will, to study foreign languages. That is constructive neither for their educational development nor for the teachers who are expected to teach them a subject in which they have no interest. [Interruption.]

By 2012—an ambitious and optimistic target—all primary school children will be entitled to study modern foreign languages. [Interruption.] There are already 20 per cent.—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Minister has done very well.

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West)

I acknowledge and share the Minister's enthusiasm for introducing modern foreign languages at primary level. Will he acknowledge that many young people enter school bilingual and that there are many languages that we should encourage, so that those who speak them can establish their level of attainment at GCSE?

Mr. Lewis

I entirely agree. It is sensible to build on the skills that young people have in the early years and to encourage them through primary education, so that by the time they reach 14 they are far more likely to be motivated to make a positive choice to continue studying modern foreign languages, rather than being compelled to do so.