HL Deb 28 June 2000 vol 614 cc891-3

2.42 p.m.

Lord Watson of Richmond asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they accept the recommendation of the Nuffield Languages Inquiry that languages should have the same status as literacy, numeracy and information communication technology as a key skill and whether they will consequently make a commitment to early language training for all children.

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

My Lords, the Government will respond fully to the Nuffield report in due course. Already we are piloting approaches to language teaching in primary schools and we have asked the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) to consider the potential to extend that in the longer term.

Lord Watson of Richmond

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer, but it stops short of the commitment for which the Nuffield inquiry makes such a powerful case. Is Her Majesty's Government aware that, by not making that commitment, they will seriously disadvantage Britain's competitiveness in the future in a multi-lingual world and that they will disadvantage pupils in state schools as opposed to those in private schools? I presume that that is not their intention. It is much easier to learn languages when one is young, so why not allow everyone that opportunity?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I accept that there is much to be said for starting to learn languages at an early age. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Richmond, is jumping the gun in saying that the Government are making no commitments in this area. The Government are considering the recommendations of the Nuffield inquiry. As I said, the Government will reply to all the recommendations in due course. Meanwhile, a growing number of primary schools—between 25 and 30 per cent—are able to offer a modern language as an option. That may not satisfy the noble Lord, but it is an improvement on the situation in the past. The QCA is looking at the matter and, when it has reported, I shall let the noble Lord know the outcome.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the build-up over the past four or five years of specialist language colleges has been an outstanding success? They now total almost 100. Have they not shown that in this country we can have a good take-up for languages, enthusiastic learning and a good language spread, including languages beyond French to German, Italian, Spanish and other languages? Would it not be timely to take up the Nuffield recommendation and match secondary schools with specialist primary schools so that parents with a serious commitment to wanting their children to learn foreign languages can be confident that there will be a smooth and progressive transition to the secondary level in a way that was denied during earlier initiatives of this kind?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, has said about the success of specialist language schools so far. Across the country they teach some 20 languages, thus allowing greater choice. They also allow languages such as Japanese and Mandarin to be taught in our secondary schools. I accept what he says about the need for a smoother transition for those primary school children who have had the chance to learn a modern language so that they can take forward what they have learned into their secondary schools. His suggestion that specialist schools should work with the primary schools in their areas to achieve that smooth progression is one that is being examined. I hope that it will be taken forward.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, the Nuffield report is splendid and the authors are to be congratulated. However, the shortage of language teachers is most worrying. The report states: The shortage of teachers, which is now acute and damaging the quality of provision in schools and colleges, is creating a vicious circle of inadequate supply". In those circumstances, is it not absurd that university departments that train teachers of modern languages are threatened with closure?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, there has been a long-term problem in relation to the recruiting of modern language teachers, as there certainly was during the period when the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, was himself a Cabinet Minister. The Government are attempting to address this difficult area. We are providing PGCE students, who are trained to be modern language teachers, with a £6,000 quasi salary. We hope that that will encourage more young people with language degrees to enter teaching, because at present many do not. We are also providing an extra £4,000 to teachers of shortage subjects, after their induction period, when they first start teaching. In relation to maths and science teachers, that has been very successful and we hope that there will be similar success as regards language teachers.

I do not know to what the noble Lord refers when he says that departments that train teachers in modern languages are being closed. There has been some reduction in the number of students taking a modern language as a single-subject honours degree, but there has been a big increase in the number of students who combine a modern language with another subject.

Baroness David

My Lords, is it not a fact that many students can now start a language when they reach university? I totally appreciate the advantage of starting to learn a language when one is young. However, there is now the opportunity at university to start a degree from scratch in a language such as Russian, to graduate and hopefully to take up the teaching of it afterwards.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. There is now a much more imaginative approach in higher education to the teaching of modern languages which allows students who have some potential in this area to start a language from scratch. Through intensive training—often a four-year course with one year spent abroad—students can reach good degree-level standards in that subject, and that is to be encouraged.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is another side to this very valuable coin? I refer to the encouragement of the teaching of English to the speakers of other languages.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I entirely agree that encouraging people to learn English is another side of this coin and one from which British exporters can certainly benefit.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the French and German Governments are discussing closer bilateral co-operation in teaching each other's languages? Now that Britain is at the heart of Europe, according to the Prime Minister, have the British Government considered making bilateral arrangements with the Spanish, French and German Governments? We used to have good foreign language assistants in British schools in much larger numbers. If such a scheme could be expanded again, it would help primary and secondary schools considerably.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, discussions of a bilateral nature are taking place with the governments of those countries to extend provision of that kind. I am afraid that demand from those countries for students from the UK to work as language teaching assistants is bigger than the demand in the opposite direction.