HL Deb 11 November 1997 vol 583 cc81-4

2.50 p.m.

Lord Quirk

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they will take to increase the learning of foreign languages.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, all secondary school pupils in England and Wales are required to learn a modern foreign language. In 1996, 437,000 15 year-olds attempted a GCSE in a modern foreign language. We continue to support language learning through grant-in-aid to the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research. Under the specialist schools initiative 47 secondary schools have been designated language colleges, and more are planned.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords—

Noble Lords

Order! Order!

Lord Quirk

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that encouraging reply. However, does she share my concern that we still in this country teach only one foreign language to any serious degree or to any great numbers, and that since 1992, despite a general and very much welcomed increase in the stay-on rate for 16 year-olds, the numbers taking foreign languages after 16 has actually declined absolutely during that period? Perhaps I may therefore refer the Minister to three relevant initiatives in the July White Paper (Excellence in Schools, paragraphs 4.14, 7.35, and 6.32). I ask in consequence that the Government ensure that those 47 specialist language schools to which the Minister referred, which are happily well distributed regionally, will share their enthusiasm and expertise with neighbouring schools; that independent schools do likewise for state schools in their area; and that business partners like Rover-BMW do something to urge upon youngsters the importance for their careers of language proficiency, if only for job mobility in the single market?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the noble Lord made a number of points. Let me begin by saying that while the vast majority of pupils study French in our secondary schools (last year 324,000 children entered for GCSE in French) there were also 130,000 examination entries in German and 40,000 in Spanish. There are 19 languages recognised in the national curriculum, of which eight are EU languages, and there are 11 others, including Arabic, Bengali, Gujurati, Hindi, and so on. There is a broad range. I very much endorse what the noble Lord said about the role of the 47 specialist schools. It is important that they work and collaborate with other schools in their communities, and perhaps support children who may not go to those schools but who discover that they have a particular propensity for modern language learning and want to study languages, and are therefore able to do some of their courses in those specialist schools. On the business sector, it is very much up to employers to decide what skills they want from their employees. I am sure that there will be more employers wanting to take on employees in the single market who are proficient in a European language.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Quirk. I should like to ask my noble friend who has talked about the secondary stage what the Government are doing to expand the teaching of modern languages at the primary stage? Is she aware that in France at the ages of seven and eight schoolchildren learn one modern language and that at nine and 10 they can take a second modern language? Are the Government going to try to attain that sort of standard in future?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, there has been an increase in the number of primary schools able to teach a foreign language. I think about 20 per cent. of primary school pupils are getting some exposure to modern language teaching at the primary level. It would be desirable were we able to increase that proportion, but we have to take into account the resources needed to do that. There would be considerable resource and organisational implications. We do not currently have enough language teachers, so we would have to start a major language teacher training programme. There is a shortage of language teachers at the secondary stage, which the Government inherited and are trying to address. It is important that we get that right before we embark upon a big expansion in primary schools. I note what my noble friend said about its desirability.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, given that after English Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world and Portuguese is the third, as a first language, will the Minister assure us that sufficient emphasis will be given to those languages in the national curriculum?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, both Spanish and Portuguese are listed as national curriculum languages. It is up to the schools, their governing bodies, and teachers in discussion with parents, to decide which languages they shall teach. There has been a growth in the teaching of Spanish. I do not believe that many pupils at the secondary stage learn Portuguese. However, as I said, it is a matter for the schools to decide which languages they want to promote. There is a long historical tradition of pupils learning French. The French are still our nearest neighbours.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, as one who learnt English, as did many others in Wales, as a second language at primary school, perhaps I may reinforce the suggestion that it would probably be a good investment for this country, even at this stage, to ensure that the teachers are available to teach a foreign language at primary school, because it is so much easier for the pupils.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I strongly endorse the fact that learning a foreign language early is a good idea, because young children pick up languages quickly. We have to have continuity between primary and secondary schools, which means that we have to be sure that the language a child has learnt in the primary school is the same as the languages taught in the secondary school to which it goes. Otherwise, we shall find ourselves in the situation where children are being asked to start all over again at the secondary level. That is the kind of considerable organisational problem which would have to be addressed.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in the good and balmy days of education in the 1970s, under an enlightened chairman and progressive education authority—namely, Blackburn—we started a primary project of having peripatetic language teachers going around to all our schools? All the schools in that enlightened authority managed to get a reasonable amount of foreign languages taught within the primary sector. Does she contemplate that it will ever be possible to achieve that again?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, let me congratulate my noble friend on the enlightened policies of the local authority with which he was associated. There is a wish to try to develop language schools in primary schools, but it is important to ensure that what we are doing at the secondary stage is adequate. There has been a slight drop in the number of students taking A-level languages over the past couple of years. We need to get that back up. It is a matter of where our priorities lie.

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