HC Deb 02 December 2003 vol 415 cc477-86

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn —[Paul Clark.]

6.57 pm
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab)

There are many ways in which one can put people into categories. I want to divide the population at large into two categories: polyglots and monoglots. For the information of the House, a monoglot is someone who uses or speaks only one language. I wish to see a severe reduction in the number of monoglots. That is something of a problem for native English speakers, in particular, because they confidently expect that the rest of the world will eventually also speak English, and that it is merely a question of waiting long enough. Of course, there is lots of evidence to support them in their view.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con)

Das stimmt.

Ms Stuart

I would lose to respond to the hon. Gentleman's heckling, but as I understand that one is not permitted to speak any language other than English in this Chamber, I shall refrain.

The question for many native English speakers is why they should bother to learn another language. I should like to suggest several reasons that go beyond the obvious advantage of being able to speak more confidently when abroad on holiday. In the long term, it is safe to assume that eventually English will expand further and further as a lingua franca, but it would be a mistake for native English speakers to assume that it will be the kind of English that we speak now. I found it fascinating, when working on the Convention on the Future of Europe over the past 18 months, to learn that many people from eastern European countries speak extraordinarily confident English without having been near any English-speaking country. However, there is a development of using English words differently from a native English speaker. The classic example of that is the German word for mobile phone—"handy". Germans refer to their "handies" and think it odd when native English speakers ask, "What is a handy?"

The second reason for learning foreign languages in schools is that pupils will understand their own language much better.

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Paul Clark.]

Ms Stuart

Studying a foreign language can help to deepen the understanding of one's own language. Different languages express different ways of thinking. I shall always remember a meeting that I attended in the Treasury when an official said to me, "It would be helpful if you would not be so terribly German on this occasion."

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con)

The hon. Lady said that different languages express different ways of thinking. I spent two years living in Germany, trying to understand and master German. Can she explain why the Germans have 16 different ways of saying "the"?

Ms Stuart

Tempted as I am, I do not wish to bore the House into submission by going through the various cases, genders and the way in which adjectives are declined. However, there are reasons for that. It comes back to the Treasury officials asking me not to be so German about a matter. I said that I would try but that they would have to explain what they meant. They said that German thinking was like thinking in Lego bricks—putting together an argument by sequential reasoning. Once A is agreed, B logically falls and C cannot be reopened. They said that the British way was to put the whole case on the table and perhaps say, "Well, maybe we shouldn't do this at all", to which the very German response would be, "But we've agreed about 1, 2, 3 and 4, and we cannot therefore go back to the beginning."

At the same time, some things that can be expressed in English cannot be expressed in almost any other language. I defy anyone to translate T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" into another language and preserve its beauty and emotions. It is a case of horses for courses. Some languages lend themselves better to some ways of expressing specific matters. We need to teach our children such appreciation of different ways of reasoning and also—another problem for the English—to teach them grammar. English is not based on rigid rules, and many children grow up with no understanding of grammar and therefore find it difficult to acquire other languages.

The debate about apostrophe "s" occurs frequently in the media. Whenever we produce newsletters, as I am sure the Minister knows from his office, we check the word "its" and ensure that the use of the apostrophe is appropriate. Few people understand that. In my office, people tend to turn to the assorted foreigners and say, "You'd better proof-read this because you understand the rule." I was fascinated by an exchange about the apostrophe on Radio 4. Someone asked, "What's the point of it?" Another listener wrote in to say, "I'd like people to consider one sentence: 'We ran out of food, so we ate the dogs.''' The presence or absence of an apostrophe in the word "dogs" severely changes the meaning. The apostrophe serves a purpose, and it is essential that we understand it.

We have a problem with foreign language teaching. I recall meeting a young man who had recently passed his GCSE German with a grade A and subsequently moved to a second school. He said. "It's fascinating how much easier it is once you've worked out the rules." I asked what he meant by rules and discovered that he became familiar with the concept of an irregular verb only in the first year of his A-level studies. It made me curious to know how that child could have got a GCSE grade A without knowing that there were irregular verbs. I hope that the school was so skilful that it simply managed not to reveal what irregular verbs were. However, the child was not aware of the rules.

That is the second point—the importance of culture—but there is a third, which is very pragmatic, so it should appeal to the British, if nothing else does: if we do not use foreign languages in our business dealings, we lose business. Advantage West Midlands, which is an extremely fine organisation, did a language skills capacity audit in 2001. The west midlands exports about 8 per cent. of the UK's exports, while 60 per cent. of the region's exports go to the European Union. The survey of companies showed that 70 per cent. of those that responded used at least one foreign language in business, while nearly 50 per cent. used two.

The most used languages, according to the sample, were French, German, Spanish and Italian. The survey also found rising demand for Spanish, but when it asked companies to look back at the past three years to see whether they had encountered any language barriers to their business dealings, 50 per cent. said yes while some 16 per cent. said that they had encountered cultural barriers in their international trading.

What I found most depressing about the survey was the fact that while 8 per cent. of companies said in 1996 that they had lost business owing to lack of language or cultural skills, that figure had grown to more than 20 per cent. five years later. One in five acknowledged that their lack of language skills lost them business. I understand that the British Chambers of Commerce has spent the past three months conducting a similar survey among its members. Although it is not able to publish the precise findings until next week, one finding—one of the central conclusions—will be clear, which is the importance of language teaching for business. Companies will need to deal with language strategy themselves. I want to return to the Government's responsibilities in terms of providing that pool of skilled people.

The Government's document "14—19: Opportunity and Excellence" states an extremely laudable aim, which is to have more flexibility and choice in students' programmes. I know that compulsion, by and large, is not the measure that most induces young people to take up a subject, but, with foreign languages having been removed from the core curriculum, I wonder whether it is the right way forward.

I talked to Lordswood school for girls in my constituency, which still enters every pupil for at least one modern language at GCSE. The language department is extremely successful, and the recent Ofsted report stated that it had very good teachers with many outstanding features. The school is also taking part in the British Airways awards, which show the importance of languages in business, and it will enter some 33 pupils. I congratulate Lordswood, its teachers and its pupils, but I wonder whether we are helping such schools by removing the compulsory element from the curriculum.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is much to be learned from the example in Wales, which shows that young people who are educated from an early age in the English and Welsh languages have a greater aptitude later for learning a third language—a foreign language?

Ms Stuart

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. All research seems to show that the time to start teaching foreign languages is before children start school—when they are three, four or five. That is when those skills develop, which is why I can see a reason for removing the compulsory element from 14 to 19-year-olds, provided that we do something at an earlier stage. What matters is not at what stage children start learning languages, but that they acquire that skill, which they can build on.

I want to refer briefly to the National Centre for Languages publication "Language Trends 2003". It says that half of schools remain convinced that languages should remain compulsory. It also says—again, this is worrying—that the policy is having an unintended effect on non GCSE qualifications in languages. Whilst languages were compulsory, some schools were providing alternative vocational or short course options in languages for groups of pupils not likely to attain good GCSE grades. Now the pupils who formerly took those options are allowed to drop the subject altogether there has been a significant decline in these alternative courses. It goes on to conclude that at a time when Government policy is to encourage more work related learning, this is a matter of concern. The real problem is that we may be in danger of destroying an infrastructure on which we can build. If language learning is compulsory, and the structure exists, we can attach other courses to it.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC)

Does the hon. Lady agree that the answer is not to retreat from the compulsory teaching of languages, but to teach languages in a better way? The Welsh model gives one hope that the same approach might be adopted in England, and that bilingualism and multilingualism might be regarded as more normal, as it were. Such a move would be welcomed by hon. Members of all parties.

Ms Stuart

I come back to my earlier point, which is that compulsion is not conducive to learning. That is why the drop-out rates are so high in the age group under discussion. I understand that that was part of the Government's motive in removing foreign languages from the core curriculum.

The challenge is to make sure that students enjoy learning languages, and that depends on how they are taught. However. I have three main concerns. First, removing languages from the core curriculum may result, albeit unintentionally, in fewer young people studying foreign languages. If we do not make young people study foreign languages, we may deprive them of other, more cross-cutting skills.

Secondly, we will deprive business of the skilled work force that it needs. Finally, I am worried that such a policy will not provide the national capabilities in the higher education sector that the Government say are needed, at a time when the national languages strategy calls for more modern language graduates.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister say whether the effects of the policy of removing languages from the core curriculum are being monitored? What is the evaluation process? In the light of what he has seen so far, does he still think that the policy was right?

7.11 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg)

First, welcome this important debate instigated by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart). We had a brief opportunity for a conversation earlier when my hon. Friend asked whether I was a monoglot or a polyglot. I claimed to be the latter, but with the qualification that my French was pretty rusty, and my Spanish even worse.

I was asked earlier this year to take responsibility for taking forward the modern foreign languages strategy. I recalled my regret at ending my studies in French at 16, and in Spanish at 14. I absolutely concur with what my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said about the scale of the challenge that we face to improve our country's record in foreign language teaching.

I want to describe two visits that I have made in my ministerial capacity this year. In February, I went to the US, where I visited a language immersion school in the southern city of Charlotte. It was a state school, free at the point of use, for primary-age children. Classes were taught entirely in foreign languages—French, German and Japanese. That underlines the point made in the debate that the earlier we address the question of language teaching, and the earlier we give children opportunities to learn another language, the more likely we are to encourage children—and adults—to maintain language learning.

In May, I had the opportunity to go to Spain. I visited a primary school in Madrid, where part of the teaching was conducted in English. I observed a science class, in which the science curriculum was delivered to Spanish children in English. That school was linked, via the internet, with a school in Liverpool, where large parts of the curriculum are delivered in Spanish.

Hywel Williams

I invite the Minister to visit my constituency of Caernarfon. He need not go as far as the US or Spain, or even Catalonia or the Basque country. I am now speaking in my second language. When I was six or seven years old—and voluntarily or otherwise—I learned English by a version of the language immersion process. My constituency lies 60 miles to the west of Chester, and it contains plenty of people with a similar experience. I cordially invite the Minister to visit.

Mr. Twigg

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his invitation and, subject to the demands of my diary, I would be delighted to come along and see that for myself. He raises a serious issue: we can learn a great deal from communities in our own country where children often grow up bilingual, or even multilingual. Learning that lesson from Wales is an important part of taking forward the strategy for modern foreign languages in our schools.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston referred to the report on the west midlands languages strategy published by Advantage West Midlands; that was an important contribution to the discussion. The strategy was one of a series of regional approaches that have sought to address the language needs of business and outline a range of initiatives to deal with the situation. That work in the west midlands was conducted in conjunction with CILT—the National Centre for Languages—which has been working closely with networks in the regions to ensure that we align the challenges that we face in education with some of those that we face in the wider world, including the world of business and industry.

Interestingly, the rising demand for Spanish, to which my hon. Friend referred, fits with the emphasis on Spanish in the national languages strategy. I am pleased to say that, although the numbers taking some other languages at GCSE—including French and German—are declining, for Spanish the trend is in the opposite direction, so it is not all doom and gloom.

I would like to say a little about our national languages strategy, which was published last December. It sets out an approach to improve our capability in languages. As part of that, we have appointed a national director for languages, and we have a particular focus on primary education, and key stage 2. We estimate that only around one in five children of primary age get the opportunity to learn a foreign language in England, which shows the scale of the challenge that we face.

The strategy outlines a commitment that by 2010 all pupils in junior schools at key stage 2 will have the opportunity to study a modern foreign language and develop their interest in the culture of other nations. From September of this year, 19 local education authorities across England have been conducting key stage 2 language pathfinders to look at the best ways of improving language learning and consider what kind of support local education authorities, schools and teachers need to do that.

Absolutely critical to that is delivering and building the primary work force capacity. We simply do not have the capacity at the moment to achieve the objective that all of us involved in the debate want to achieve. As a Department, and together with the local education authorities in the pathfinders, we are working with the Teacher Training Agency, as well as with teachers and other professionals, to build a new cadre of primary language specialists. We want schools to be able to decide how and when they plan for the introduction of language programmes, and how that language learning is best delivered in the classroom. We expect that to be done in a range of ways, suitable to the different circumstances of particular schools in their own community.

A programme of initial teacher training in primary modern foreign languages is in its third year, and there has been a gradual expansion in the number of places. For example, for French, Spanish and German, there are 460 places this year. We expect to continue to increase the number of places year on year. We have also invested in 50 modern foreign languages places on the graduate teacher programme, and we are funding 119 primary modern foreign language advanced skills teacher posts. We are beginning to build up the capacity for that target date of 2010.

We recognise in the strategy that simply training more teachers will not be sufficient, so we are also funding opportunities for language undergraduates to support language learning in schools. We are developing training for higher-level teaching assistants, so that those in the community who have language skills can gain additional experience and skills in teaching to support language learning. We are also extending recruitment for the foreign language assistant programme to our primary schools.

We see our role as that of extending capacity, and creating a framework for the teaching and learning of languages at key stage 2. That framework will need to be flexible and applicable to any language, so that it fits in with our broader primary strategy. We want schools to have much more control over their own curriculums, and a lot more autonomy in terms of the particular choice of language.

I want to say a little about secondary education, as my hon. Friend understandably focused on the changes that we have made to key stage 4—the 14 to 16 phase of education. I am very conscious that those changes are contentious and that concerns exist; indeed, those concerns are raised with me in my frequent visits to secondary schools. I am confident that, in the longer term, the measures that we are putting place in our primary schools—I have outlined them—will make a difference, but I accept that it will take some time for the effect to feed through to our secondary schools. We cannot simply rely on that long-term impact from the primary strategy; we need to continue to focus on secondary education, and I shall briefly address that issue now.

In key stage 3—the early years of secondary education, from 11 to 14—we want a much stronger emphasis on language teaching. One tool that we possess is the growing network of specialist language colleges: specialist schools that choose to specialise in languages. They have a crucial role to play in supporting primary entitlement, about which I have already spoken. At the moment, 188 specialist language colleges are operational across England, and they are making a difference, but I am aware that some local education authorities do not yet have any such colleges. We have set a target to increase their number to at least 200 within two years. I hope and expect that we can exceed that target, in order to maximise the impact of our work in the primary and secondary sectors. The latest round of applications has just finished, and we will announce further specialist language college designations next January.

A modern foreign languages programme forms part of the key stage 3 national strategy because, of course, there is still compulsion between 11 and 14. It is critically important that modern foreign language teaching be delivered to 11 to 14-year-olds in an exciting and vibrant way that captures their imagination, making it more likely that, when modern foreign languages become optional at 14, they will choose to carry on studying them. We want to ensure that we have a set of objectives that enable pupils to develop an understanding of the skills and conventions of language learning, and the confidence to use their new language independently. The associated framework and training provide a valuable opportunity for teachers to engage in a professional debate about the issues associated with learning and teaching modern foreign languages. Teachers' evaluations of the core training show that there is a lot of enthusiasm and high motivation in terms of improving practice, and that collaborative planning is becoming more commonplace, and is regarded as very valuable by teachers themselves.

That brings me to key stage 4—the area of contention about which concerns have been raised. As my hon. Friend rightly said at the beginning of her speech, we are very keen to provide greater choice and flexibility for young people from the age of 14. We are all aware of the issues of disaffection and disruption associated particularly, although not exclusively, with that age group. When I visit secondary schools, and speak to young people in that age group about the curriculum and the subjects that they are studying and ask what their least favourite subject is, I am struck by how often the answer is "French" or "German"—the foreign language that they are learning. Many head teachers tell me that that can have a very demotivating effect—not only on the child who is being made to study a subject that they do not want to study, but on those in the classroom who do want to study French or German. The class is perhaps being disrupted by those who do not want to study.

I believe that we have made the right decision in allowing such choice as part of a broader loosening of the curriculum, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that simply leaving the matter at that would be a fundamental error. That is why we have addressed the primary entitlement, about which I have spoken. That is also why the languages strand of the key stage 3 strategy is so important. It is also why we have addressed the situation for those aged 14-plus, in terms of encouraging language learning, even though it is optional.

Many schools have opted and will opt to retain compulsory language teaching. At least half of all schools are likely to do so. Clearly, the specialist language colleges that I have mentioned will, by their nature, maintain compulsion, but many other schools will also opt to do so. The danger is that schools in more challenging circumstances, which serve more deprived communities, will be less likely to maintain compulsion. We must ensure that young people and children in those schools get the opportunities that we expect to be available to all young people and children to carry on learning languages through their educational careers.

My hon. Friend asked me specifically about monitoring. We monitor the situation carefully, although the new arrangements are not yet in place. Schools are making their preparations for changing to the optional arrangements for next year, and we will monitor that very closely. My hon. Friend mentioned post-16 education, and we want to ensure that we have the best possible quality and choice at that stage, because many young people give up studying languages at 16.

Languages are part of national campaigns to promote adult learning, such as the adult learners week that is run for the Department by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. We are promoting a range of ways to achieve language qualifications—for example, at level 2—and we are working closely with local learning and skills councils to ensure that particular needs are met. We encourage further education institutions to work with local schools in support of the strategy, and we need FE institutions to promote the advantages and social, cultural and economic value of taking a further education course in languages.

My hon. Friend reminded the House that the strategy commits us to increasing the number of higher education students taking modern foreign languages as all or part of their degree. That is an important element of the strategy and we will work with HE institutions on that. We will also encourage HE institutions to work more closely with both primary and secondary schools to support the broader languages strategy.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, there are sound economic as well as cultural reasons for learning a foreign language. Language graduates and those studying languages alongside their main degree have better job prospects than average. Modern foreign language graduates have lower unemployment rates than those in other subjects, such as engineering and technology, media studies find computing. Businesses tell us that they are losing vital business because their staff lack the language and cultural competence that is so crucial to our economic future.

The national recognition scheme is at the heart of the language strategy launched last year. We are developing a national voluntary scheme that will complement existing qualification frameworks and give people credit for their language skills. That scheme will form part of the answer to my hon. Friend's challenge about 14 to 16year-olds who do not want to study for a language GCSE but who want to continue with language learning. The scheme will have a number of grades with "can do" statements for each of the four skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening. For example, speaking grade 5 would be achieved if a person can give a short prepared talk, on a topic of my choice, including expressing simple opinions. We have identified a preferred contractor to take forward that development and the scheme will be launched nationally in September 2005 in eight languages. A year later we will add other languages, including important community languages such as Punjabi, Urdu, Gujarati, Greek and Turkish. That scheme demonstrates that we are serious about our languages strategy and that we recognise some of the dangers that my hon. Friend mentioned.

With the changes at key stage 4, I am confident that the primary strategy and the new focus on secondary education and beyond will start to reverse the gloomy picture that my hon. Friend painted. In the future, we will ensure that we have the language needs of our young people at heart and we will make progress, both culturally and economically.

The motion having been made at Seven o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Seven o'clock.