HL Deb 29 October 2001 vol 627 cc1165-8

2.44 p.m.

Lord Quirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

In the current European Year of Languages, whether they are developing new initiatives to promote the learning of foreign languages.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, the Government are supporting a wide range of initiatives to promote language learning. This year we announced further funding of £200,000 to support schools offering languages to primary pupils. Growing numbers of specialist languages colleges mean that more schools can benefit from languages expertise. Investment of £970,000 will fund regional language networks to support the growing need for languages in the business sector. Furthermore, the promotion of programmes such as Socrates ensures that schools and colleges take advantage of the opportunities offered.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, the Minister's response is encouraging. However, would she not agree that, by reason of their language deficiencies, our young people are missing attractive and career-enhancing opportunities? To take the European Erasmus programme alone, is the Minister aware that, over the past seven years, British participation in that programme has dropped steadily from 12,000 to a wretched 9,000 while, on the continent of Europe, figures from Germany, France, Spain and others have virtually doubled? What will the Government do to address this imbalance?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, noble Lords will know that the Erasmus programme is the higher education element of the European Union Socrates programme. It is true to say that there is an imbalance of approximately two to one of UK students studying overseas. We have looked at a range of ways to encourage students in this, not least that those students who decide to take up the full year option do not pay tuition fees. Furthermore, the Higher Education Funding Council gives an additional £1,000 per student to the universities in order further to support those students. Those are some of the ways in which we are trying to support this programme.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, at what stage do children begin to learn foreign languages?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I have visited nurseries where children are already learning foreign languages. Recently I visited a nursery in Islington. The bilingual and trilingual nursery nurses are strongly encouraged to converse with the children in their languages. Indeed, the children too are encouraged to speak in languages other than English. I believe that those children are being given an enhanced opportunity.

Within the primary education sector, some 20 per cent of schools now offer a foreign language, usually a European language and most commonly French. Thus language education provision begins at the outset of education.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, there is a chronic shortage in our schools of teachers of modern foreign languages. How will it be possible to expand the teaching of foreign languages without providing more teachers? How successful have the initiatives been over the past year in attracting more teachers into this sector?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, currently 250 vacancies are recorded for full-time teachers of modern foreign languages. Almost all newly qualified teachers of modern foreign languages qualify through the PGC E. We know that applications and acceptances fell this year. Such students qualify for a £6,000 bursary during their course, as well as a £4,000 "golden hello" following their induction. In primary education, we have earmarked 100 teacher training places for French teachers who wish specifically to teach in that sector. The course includes time spent in a French institution. I have outlined some of the ways in which we are trying to enhance the teaching of modern foreign languages, but we recognise that the issue of shortages must be addressed.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in spite of the increasingly widespread use of English, learning a foreign language is a vital component of understanding other cultures. Language is not purely a means of communicating with others or, indeed, of doing business with others? Now, perhaps more than at any other time, it is important to ensure that different cultures understand each other.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I do not believe that I could express those sentiments any better from the Dispatch Box. I agree entirely with the words of the noble Lord. It is extremely important that language is used to celebrate the diversity and multiculturalism of our nation. We must take the time and opportunity to celebrate that with our children, who often come into school speaking two or even three languages but do not then have an opportunity to speak other languages within the school. This matter should be looked at in the broadest possible manner.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the acquisition of languages opens closed minds, closed markets and closed cultures? Should we not promote English abroad and modern languages at home in order to double Britain's opportunity to be successful financially, commercially, culturally and diplomatically?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, most of our European partners have good track records in the promotion of English speaking within their own countries. Certainly in terms of promotion on a business level, we believe that the network of languages being set up in each English region, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will link learning to business needs, which is an important aspect of what the noble Lord suggests.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Lyeée Francais Charles de Gaulle school—which was set up initially to encourage joint learning by anglophone and francophone students—because of the large influx of French people into London, has had to close its doors virtually to anglophones in order to, quite understandably, meet the French Government's need to satisfy their own taxpayers? That is a great shame. Could approaches be made to the French Government, through the French Embassy, to find some way of returning to the original aims?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, part of my work in chairing the working group and steering group that have come from the Nuffield inquiry is to work with embassies from European nations to find ways in which we can support each other. I shall be happy to look at this matter in that context.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, each year, hundreds of thousands of people come into this country from abroad, some of whom have little or no command of English. What are the Government doing to ensure that such people can learn English and communicate with the rest of us within the UK?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, there are a number of different ways. However, I shall need to write to the noble Lord to be explicit as this issue does not fall specifically within my remit.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that some years ago, when there was an even greater shortage of language teachers than there is today, a scheme was started under which peripatetic teachers went round to various schools? Is that scheme still in operation today?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the scheme to which the noble Lord refers is probably based upon the language assistance scheme, which noble Lords may remember. The scheme involves working with 30 partner countries. There has been a decline in the number of UK students participating. We are considering ways in which we can increase participation. There are currently 1,732 English language assistants abroad through reciprocal arrangements.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, is it not rat her shocking that there are so many vacancies for language teachers? What are the Government doing to make being a language teacher more attractive to potential teachers?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I mentioned that we consider this to be an area of serious shortage. We offer bursaries, "golden hellos" and other incentives to enhance language teaching for those who wish to come into it. As noble Lords will know, we are looking at the writing-off of student loans, and people in this group will qualify for that. 'We are looking at financial incentives for those who wish to come into the profession. We are also ensuring that we make it an attractive way for people to be involved in teaching.