HL Deb 06 June 2000 vol 613 cc1041-4

2.42 p.m.

Lord Quirk

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they propose to respond to the final report of the Nuffield inquiry into the United Kingdom's foreign language needs over the next 20 years.

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, we regard it as very important that we have the right level of language capability to help us compete in global markets. The Government will consider the recommendations over the coming months and a cross-departmental working group will reflect views across Whitehall.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. While the report duly acknowledges that in this country, including our industry, we neglect other languages partly through an exaggerated perception of the current world-wide status of English, will the Minister agree that it makes some valuable suggestions on a wide range of matters such as the training of teachers and the needs of business in languages far beyond the standard fare of GCSE French?

Will the Minister (though I recognise that this is outside his normal bailiwick) comment on the Government's likely reaction to one particular recommendation in the Nuffield report which seems to me to be of special interest? It is to create a new category of primary schools, perhaps 1,000 in all, which will specialise in foreign languages and enable parents to have a choice of their children learning German, Russian or even Mandarin; and to have that target language, whatever it may be, the medium of instruction from as young an age as perhaps six or seven?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, we agree that the Nuffield report makes some valuable suggestions and we shall review them with a cross-departmental group over the coming months. As regards teaching children in primary schools, the research on early language learning suggests that benefits are mixed and that children introduced to a formal learning structure at secondary level achieve results on a par with those who have studied at primary level.

However, our Early Language Learning Initiative, which is managed by the Centre for Information on Language, Teaching and Research, will give practical help to primary schools in teaching languages. Over two years, the project will develop high quality curriculum materials for teachers, develop and disseminate models of good practice and establish a network of practitioners.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, why is the Minister so confident that the English state is right in teaching languages only at secondary level, whereas in every part of Europe they are taught at primary level? Should he not advise his noble friends that we might be wrong and that the French, the Germans, the Hungarians and everyone else might be right and that languages should be taught at an earlier level? And I remind the Minister that when he was at an independent school, it did!

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, if that were the case, it was a prime example of why such a policy failed! As I hope my original Answer made clear, we are not rejecting the proposals. We have examined the evidence and are taking initiatives to encourage such teaching on a wider scale.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, does the Minister believe that, in addition to the impact of this excellent report on business and education, he could encourage politicians to give a lead in making such learning more widely known and accepted? Is he aware that for Members of this House the German Embassy sponsors a language class Thursday lunchtimes and that the average attendance is two? Could he encourage some of the new Members of this House to take advantage of the generosity of the German Embassy?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, perhaps I may congratulate the two Members who attend. I am happy to place my full weight behind encouraging more people to do so.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, does the research to which the Minister has referred shed light on why Britain seems to be so bad at teaching foreign languages and why other countries are more effective, and what lessons we can learn from their experience?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, it is not clear that the lack of language competence is due to failures of teaching; it may be due to failures of motivation. What is worrying is the number of people in this country who are happy not to know foreign languages. It is as much an issue of motivation and the ease of travelling around the world with English as it is of failures of teaching.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the experience in Wales, where children are taught Welsh at primary level, indicates that they gain a head start not only in their ability to speak Welsh but all other languages which they then attempt to learn?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, that is an admirable example and one upon which we should all reflect.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley

My Lords, will the noble Lord bear in mind the difficulties which arise at secondary level when some primary schools have taught French and some have not? That is where schemes have previously fallen down.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, that is not a subject with which I am familiar. I shall write to the noble Earl about the matter.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that a large part of the Nuffield report deals with languages in business? Does my noble friend agree that skill in languages is a key to success in overseas markets?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the answer to that is emphatically "yes". The present situation is that, even today, exports to countries where the main language is not English amount, I believe, to approximately 60 per cent of the UK's total exports. It is quite clear that some of our major markets for the future lie outside the non-English speaking markets, such as east Asia and Latin America. Therefore, we believe strongly that it is necessary to have a mastery of language in order to exploit those markets.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, does the Minister recall the words of the Prime Minister in August 1998 in a published letter saying: There has never been a time when the ability to communicate with other cultures and in their own languages was more important to our nation's well-being and prosperity"? Are the Government making this a point of national policy?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, of course, I well remember the Prime Minister's remarks. As I hope I made clear, our response to the report is cross-departmental and we want to carry this out on a cross-departmental basis because we believe that it is of major importance.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, the previous government introduced a foreign language into the national curriculum. Can the Minister tell the House whether pupils leaving school are gaining an increasing number of passes at GSCE and A-levels?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I believe that from 1992 to 1999 there was a decline in the number of pupils taking A-levels. However, I believe that the pass rate increased significantly.

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