HL Deb 11 February 1999 vol 597 cc319-20

3.2 p.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to improve the standards of foreign language teaching in Scottish schools and to increase the number of pupils sitting the higher leaving certificate in such subjects.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sewel)

My Lords, in October 1998, my right honourable friend Mrs. Helen Liddell, Minister of State for Education, announced a package of measures to strengthen modern languages in Scottish schools. This included securing the place of modern languages within the five to 14 curriculum, improving the quality of modern languages at standard grade and the establishment of an action group on languages. Those measures will seek to improve the continuity between five to 14, standard grade and higher grade and also to raise the appeal of modern languages at higher grade. From 1st July 1999 this will be a matter for the Scottish Parliament.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, I warmly welcome that Answer from the Minister. Is he aware that over the past 20 years the number of pupils in fifth forms in Scottish schools, taking modern European languages at the higher certificate level, has dropped by about a half? In October last year, when the Minister was setting up the action paper, Her Majesty's inspectors of schools said that there were significant weaknesses in the teaching of languages in 80 per cent. of Scottish secondary schools.

Naturally I welcome the setting up of the action group, but will the Government give a pledge to accept the recommendations that come from it and to monitor the results of the efforts being made to make Scotland, in the modern sense, a country with an education system appropriate to being a good European country?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, there is a one-word answer to that question: yes. It is true that there has been a considerable and unwelcome decline in the number of presentations at higher grade over the past 10 years. It has fallen from about 11,000 to 5,000. That worries us to a considerable extent and it is why my right honourable friend the Minister for Education in Scotland established the languages action group. We are determined to ensure that progress is made in the area.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, when the Minister has sorted out Scotland in that respect, perhaps in the interests of joined up government he would have a word with his colleagues in the DfEE, to fix things for the rest of the UK as well. Will he refer them to page 35 of this week's Ofsted report which states that during the five years of secondary education in England and Wales, less progress was made in modern languages than in almost any other subject in the curriculum?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, a tiny part of me is tempted to say that I am more than delighted to do so. However, the rest of me suggests that I am rather circumspect in venturing south of the Border on such matters.

Lord Elton

My Lords, given that the Government's party may not be in a majority in the Scottish Parliament, how is the noble Lord able to give undertakings as to what will be done in devolved areas of policy in two years' time?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I have faith and confidence in the good judgment of the Scottish people.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, the Westminster Parliament will continue to be responsible for foreign affairs in the United Kingdom and modern languages have a good deal to do with foreign affairs. Can the Minister—who, after all, speaks for the whole Government—tell the House whether, once the Scots Parliament is in being, it will be possible in this House to ask questions and receive answers on a matter such as this relating to the education of Scots people in foreign languages?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, as I understand it, it is a matter for the House authorities to decide whether, and how, matters of Scottish interest will be dealt with in this House. I believe that the other place has already made a decision that questions on Scottish business will not be accepted. That is my understanding. The difficulty would be that if questions on the topic were put down in this House there would be no Scottish Minister to answer them.

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