HL Deb 18 December 2002 vol 642 cc648-51

2.55 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have for the teaching of modern foreign languages in schools.

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

My Lords, today we published our languages strategy. Our vision is to create an appetite for learning, broadening and enriching the options available. We aim to provide a flexible system of learning languages for all ages; the opportunity for every key stage 2 child to study at least one foreign language by the end of this decade; and to ensure that language learning has a key place in the transformed secondary school of the future.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer and congratulate her on finally introducing a strategy. Does she accept that, having produced a strategy, the time will come for delivering it? Is she satisfied that the Government have the resources to deliver it?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his kind words about the strategy. I am satisfied that in spending time on producing the strategy, and through an approach that ensures that we have time to deliver it, we shall have the resources to do so. It will be a strategy of which we can rightly be proud.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, the problem in question is as much about public motivation as teacher provision. Will the Minister comment on an earlier government's introduction of compulsory teaching of French at 11?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am not sure that I understand the thrust of the right reverend Prelate's comments. However, I understood the comment about motivation and opportunity. We have to provide the opportunity for children to learn languages earlier, and for all of us to continue with language learning, and to see its relevance and appropriateness, throughout the rest of our lives.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, is the Minister concerned by the fact that our continental neighbours can produce qualified teachers to teach languages from the age of seven, when Her Majesty's Government have to ask retired businessmen and others to help? Does it worry the Government that they cannot produce what our neighbours produce and have produced for many years?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, next year we propose to double the number of qualified teachers coming into primary schools. However, I caution noble Lords against the way in which the "Today" programme, particularly, represented our policies and strategies in terms of other people. There are many people in this country who are bilingual, trilingual, and whatever one calls it when one speaks four languages—quadrilingual, perhaps. Those people can offer us some expertise. By using our teaching assistant route, we propose to enable those people, through a qualification, to offer support in the classroom.

I have just been to a school in London where there were teachers teaching languages, with the support of teaching assistants who could offer a greater variety of languages—Spanish and French, for example.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, in view of our short-sighted reluctance to learn foreign languages, would the Minister give maximum publicity to page 13 of the strategy document, which states: Businesses need people with language skills … German being the most in demand"? Should that not indeed be virtually self-evident, given the importance of German in Europe, both demographically and economically, with 100 million native speakers and up to another 100 million who are thoroughly competent to use it, not least in the old Austro-Hungarian empire into which the European Union is extending?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I understand the importance of German. The noble Lord, Lord Quirk, rightly said that businesses referred to German as a language of particular concern. Sixty per cent of British trade is with non-English speaking countries. In a survey conducted in four English regions in 2001, more than 45 per cent of respondent companies said that they had experienced language barriers in their business dealings. I hope that noble Lords will enjoy reading the strategy over the Christmas break and will see that there has been and will continue to be business involvement in its development.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, while I welcome the plans to teach languages in primary schools, is the Minister aware of the research that shows that the best time to teach languages to children is before they are seven? They learn the language more easily and it gives them an ability to learn another language later on in life. In view of that, do the Government have any plans to extend the teaching of languages in primary schools to the beginning of school and even into nursery school? To resource such a scheme, would the Government consider adopting the Liberal Democrat policy of encouraging gap-year students from other European Union countries to train as language assistants and to come to teach in our primary and nursery schools?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, we are very interested in using students from other countries to come here and support the policy. Noble Lords may have read in some early press reports that we are also considering the role of our own language undergraduates, who could support us in that regard. We are at this stage looking specifically at children of seven years of age and up. However, I recognise from my own visits to early years settings and primary schools that many offer language opportunities. We will of course continue to support and encourage that and keep the strategy under review. Our ambition is to have the quality language support and education that all noble Lords wish to see.

Lord Renton: My Lords, which is now given priority in our schools

the teaching of foreign languages or the teaching of English, which is now the language of the world?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, it is absolutely critical that our children learn to speak, read and write good English. At the heart of the Government's strategy is the literacy and numeracy strategy. I am sure that all noble Lords agree with and endorse that. We may consider English to be the language of the world and we are most fortunate in its wide use but many languages are spoken on our planet. There is a great need for us to converse with, to trade with and to understand all of our neighbours on this planet. That is why we should endeavour to support language learning for our children.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, will the Minister help teachers in this regard? If there is an entitlement for all children to be taught a language within the course of this decade and if there is an obligation in law for schools to be obliged to make that provision—I point out that the teaching of the language is dependent on an ad hoc arrangement—at what point is the school in breach of its obligation and at what point can the parent draw on that entitlement for their child?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, within the primary area there is as yet no statutory requirement on a school to make such provision. We have set out an eight-year timetable to enable all schools to offer that to children. The local education authority comes into that arrangement as our partner in ensuring that that is available. We have deliberately not used in the strategy the perhaps more simplistic approach of saying, "We will enable every primary school to be able to offer French by having at least one teacher 'who speaks French"; rather, we have sought to be more diverse. We have deliberately said that we believe that our eight-year timetable will provide that. It is our intention to make that not a burden on schools but an opportunity. Our job is to work in partnership to ensure that that can be delivered. However, it is not as yet an entitlement in law.