HL Deb 16 January 2002 vol 630 cc1114-53

5.38 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel rose to call attention to the case for improving the teaching of foreign languages in schools following the recommendations of the Nuffield Languages inquiry report of May 2000; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, perhaps I should leave time for a different cast of characters to appear on stage. My Motion follows the Starred Questions raised in this House after publication of the report of the Nuffield Foundation by the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, on 6th June 2000 and 29th October 2001. I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising the mater then, and for pointing to its importance, perhaps as a trailer to a proper debate in this House. In return, the Government, in their response to Nuffield, rightly laid emphasis on the importance of the matter; to be precise, the teaching of modern foreign languages in our schools. I very much hope, therefore, that I shall not have to go into the point of principle. Everyone seems to agree on the end. What we are debating today is the means.

I am very happy to welcome a maiden speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Michie of Gallanach, to the debate. The noble Baroness has great expertise in this subject. I look forward to hearing what she has to say.

In introducing the debate, I shall try to do three things. I shall first summarise what seem to me to be the essential conclusions of the Nuffield report. Next I shall outline what seems to me to be the progress—or perhaps regress—since then. Finally, I should like to conclude by going to the meat of the matter: how to go from where we are now to where we would like to be. In doing so, I shall be asking some specific questions of my noble friend the Minister in the expectation—since I have given her prior notice—that the House will get serious responses.

The Nuffield inquiry, entitled Languages: the next generation, came to a number of pretty depressing conclusions. I shall not weary your Lordships by reciting them all but will pick out those that I think are particularly important.

First was the conclusion, if I may put it in headline terms, that "English is not enough". Although we may think that English has become something of a global language, we must recognise that other languages have their global place. For instance, and by way of illustration, we now know that there are more people accessing the Internet in non-English languages than in English. Moreover, the cultural problems that arise from the assumption that English, if shouted loudly enough, is understandable to everybody in whatever country are, I should have thought, alarmingly obvious.

Secondly, Nuffield pointed out that nine out of 10 children stop learning languages at the age of 16. They were without any motivation to pursue them. They were badly taught by teachers who had no enthusiasm for the subject they were teaching. No wonder they gave up.

Thirdly, Nuffield pointed to the lack of properly qualified language teachers. It was, Nuffield said, "acute and damaging". Quite so.

So, given all this, where are we now? True, the government response to Nuffield was, in its own way, encouraging. Further specialist language colleges were to be created. They were, in the words of the government response, to lead the way in a new drive to improve the foreign language skills of the nation".

But—and it is an important "but"—there was no suggestion that modern foreign languages were to become a key skill in the curriculum, and, with the best will in the world, there is no belief that the special language colleges can cover more than 10 per cent of pupils, leaving some 90 per cent in some kind of English language limbo.

Since Nuffield, the situation has got worse. The number of students taking A-levels in German and French has declined. This is equally reflected in GCSE. The European Language Year, such as it was, has passed us by. In all, and I apologise if this is a further depressing conclusion, we give to the outside world every appearance of drifting in a sea of English linguistic arrogance.

Having said that, I would add a rider. There are in fact some shafts of light. There are many schools, both primary and secondary, which have made important initiatives of their own to encourage their pupils to learn modern foreign languages. I do not want for a moment to denigrate their efforts. But we still seem to lack a clear sense of purpose, spreading across the whole primary and secondary system, which is necessary—I make no excuse for using the word "necessary"—if our children are to be given the opportunities in life which they deserve and to achieve the potential in life which we expect of them.

I turn now to the meat of the matter. First of all, let me clear away the argument about primary versus secondary and higher level schooling. There is, I believe, general agreement that language teaching should begin at primary level. It makes no sense to postpone the understanding and appreciation of foreign languages until a pupil's mind is—at least partially—formed. Primary level is of the utmost importance.

However, that is not to say that there should not be equal emphasis at the secondary level. To concentrate resources at the primary level to the neglect of secondary or university schooling is to deprive a whole generation of what, when they reach the age of entry into the job market, is a basic skill. It was, after all, the European Council in Lisbon which recognised that in the Europe of the future there should be emphasis on international skills, languages and lifelong learning. Following that, European Union Ministers of education agreed a specific programme: all sixth-formers should leave school with two foreign languages; all university students should study abroad for at least one semester; and, crucially, EU institutions and EU member state governments should pay special attention to language and other international skills when making appointments. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why we are denying a generation of today's youth who are now in secondary schooling the benefits of such an agenda.

So what is to be done? The first, and relatively easy, measure it seems to me is to encourage student exchanges. Let us take Germany as an example. In the year 2000, some 13,000 German students were studying in this country. There were only some 2,600 British students studying in Germany. Furthermore, German students here are to be found in almost all subjects, ranging from natural sciences to humanities, whereas British students in Germany tended towards the study of only music and German literature. There is a massive programme there which I hope the Government want to endorse.

The second, and perhaps more difficult, measure is to encourage the introduction of an "international baccalaureate", which would enable school leavers to go to university or into the job market with an educational qualification—including that of foreign languages which would allow them to choose where in the European Union they want to work and live. That would be of enormous benefit. Why can that not be done?

The third measure—perhaps even more difficult—is to attempt to rectify the alarming shortage, which Nuffield identified, in the number of modern foreign language teachers, both at primary and secondary level. It is no good advocating greater emphasis on foreign language teaching without understanding that, yes, it will need money, but it is people who will make the whole thing work.

It is on that last point that I want to concentrate. I am always reluctant to go back to my own schooldays, but in this case I do so only to make a point. At my preparatory school I was taught French by a teacher whose mother language was French. At my public school, I was taught Italian and German by teachers whose mother languages were, respectively, Italian and German. I do not for a moment pretend that I emerged proficient in any of those languages. Nevertheless, I am now proficient in those languages, and I could not have become so without the basic skills that I was taught. To learn fluency, one must go to the country concerned—to smell the smells and learn the rhythm of the streets and the rhythm of the language, but I could not have done it without a grounding at school in the conceptual geography of the language.

It is for those reasons that I welcome the initiative of the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany, alongside his colleagues in the French, Spanish and other embassies here. The problem that they address—the same problem that I am addressing—is the shortage of teachers of modern foreign languages, not just generally but within a subset of teachers whose mother language is the language that they teach. It is a matter of fundamental importance if we are to improve the situation.

The proposal from the German Ambassador and his European colleagues, as I understand it, is quite simple. The teaching of modern foreign languages in primary schools—or, for that matter, secondary schools—does not require special qualification. Teachers need not be formally endorsed as "language teachers". But as I know from my own experience, they must be in total command of the language that they teach, either because it is their mother language or because they have spent enough time in the country or countries whose language it is to have smelled the smells and understood the rhythm of the streets.

The project put forward by the ambassador and his colleagues envisages a wide programme of teacher exchange between us and our European partners on the principle of reciprocity. They want to learn our language, and we want to learn theirs. It even goes so far as to suggest that any financial problems with such an exchange could be dealt with. For instance, the home authority of an exchange teacher would continue to cover all normal costs and any topping up for additional costs, but there is a clear recognition that that might not be enough. In particular, housing costs could be met by the host authority. If that is not enough, there is funding from the British and German business communities for meeting identified problems.

I welcome the ambassador's initiative in proposing such a programme, but I am unclear how far it meets with the approval of Her Majesty's Government. Nevertheless, I am not at all sure that it goes far enough. I cannot understand why we cannot recruit teachers from Germany, France, Italy or Spain to teach their own language in our schools. We seem to be able to recruit Spanish nurses for the National Health Service. Why cannot we recruit Spanish teachers for our schools, if it is true that there is no requirement for language teacher identification? What about German teachers? My evidence is that there are trained teachers in Germany who cannot find a job and would like to come here to teach German.

Do the Government endorse my general arguments? If not, I have put down several questions to my noble friend Lady Ashton of Upholland. It is more than simply a question of vocational training. I shall quote Goethe:

"Whoever is not acquainted with foreign languages knows nothing of his own".

If you do not know who Goethe was, that is your problem, not mine. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

5.55 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I do know who Goethe was, and I agree with the quotation used by the noble Lord. I am one of those who do not know foreign languages. I have always found them extremely difficult to learn, possibly because, at school, I was taught by someone whose first language was English and who, on a school trip, managed to drop his pocket French dictionary into a garlic-infested lavatory and was totally panic-stricken that he would not be able to get round France without it.

I hope that we can all agree that languages are immensely important and that we are not nearly as good at teaching them in schools as we should he. Taking a long view, over 50 years or so, we would be a better, more competent society if we started teaching languages well now. That is an objective that all governments ought to have, and it is an objective that the Department for Education and Skills ought to have too.

Languages help with all sorts of things, including mobility and business. Business may proceed largely through the Internet and big international meetings may be conducted in English, but if one is going to do business with someone it helps a great deal if one can have a conversation with them after the meeting and share something of their culture and home life. That sort of relationship is still the foundation of a great deal of business and always will be. Knowing foreign languages adds immensely to the enjoyment that one can get from travelling to foreign countries and adds to one's understanding of the world as a whole.

The principal point that I take from this excellent report is that the primary school is where we must begin. That has been said for a long time, but it has never seemed possible to move in that direction. We do not have a core of teachers who are good enough at mathematics, let alone French. If we had to teach a foreign language in primary schools based on what teachers know, it would have to be French, which would make us polyglot only in a limited sense, as it is perhaps one of the least useful languages if one is going trotting around the globe. Many other languages would come first, if we were considering giving people a chance to enjoy the world and its cultures and, for the better linguists, use their languages in business.

I find it difficult to go down the road that the Nuffield report follows, in suggesting that we should put a lot of effort into trying to recruit more language teachers and put languages higher in the curriculum. I cannot see a sensible source of language teachers in the volume that would be required. I cannot see a source for the money that would be required to pay all those supernumerary teachers, who might be able to teach languages but would have nothing much else to do in a primary school structure that is largely based on class teachers. I cannot see that we will find ourselves in a position in which it would be practical or possible within the limits of a school budget to go down the route that the Nuffield report proposes.

I take a great deal of heart from what the Minister said recently. She waxed enthusiastic about the use of IT in schools. That is where the base should be. If we want to expose every child in primary school to a wide choice of foreign languages, we should use IT and distance learning. The techniques are beginning to appear. We can see the enormous success that Thomas Telford has had with its GCSE practical course. Several million pounds' worth of that technology has been sold, starting to bring distance learning into GCSE work in schools. We are not that far away from having the technology to bring it into primary schools.

The teacher in a primary school does not need a great deal of skill to guide a properly put-together system that gives exposure to a foreign language. At that age, children will absorb a language as if it were their own. One knows of children who speak nothing but French coming to English schools at the age of five and being fluent in English six months later. They are not being taught English; they are just being exposed to it. At that age, the process seems to be osmotic, and children just pick the language up. Once children have learnt that facility with language, it carries on into the later stages of their learning.

Therefore, I would recommend the Government to concentrate on what is going to be possible with new technology; concentrate on the early ages; and, as the Nuffield report states, keep a broad view of what languages should be. In bringing about the change, there is a great deal which the Government can do which it would be hard for other people to do. One needs the pump priming to make the programmes available—at least the first one—and to help schools take them on and experiment with them. I look forward to hearing from the Minister that there are commitments in that direction.

Perhaps I may make a few minor points. I have first-hand experience of the imbalance in students referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Williams. There are a lot of Germans fleeing the German education system. We like to think that ours is in trouble but many Germans prefer our system to theirs. By and large, people do not go to Germany to study the general curriculum because we have a better state education system here.

As regards language education, we need to focus on the difficulty in moving from GCSE to A-level. Those who are going on to learn a language properly need a foundation in the structure and grammar of the language and they are not getting that at GCSE-level. It is difficult to move from one to the other and the fault lies in the GCSE. If there were more conversational exposure from primary school and through the early years at secondary school, it would be easier to introduce the more formal aspects in the examination syllabus. That said, I look forward very much to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Michie.

6 p.m.

Lord Watson of Richmond

My Lords, first, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for arriving in the Chamber a minute and a half or so after he had started his speech. There was no disrespect on my part because I have the greatest respect for his views on the subject. Indeed, I agreed with all the points he made. I am looking forward to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Michie, and I am sure that I will agree with everything she has to say.

I declare an interest as chairman of the English Speaking Union and therefore professionally committed to the promotion of English as a global language. Why, with that interest, should I have such a strong interest in foreign language learning in schools in this country? I want to explain that.

First, perhaps I may remind your Lordships of the extent of the current dominance, unprecedented and unparalleled, of the English language. Arguably, there are at present four world languages: Chinese, Hindi, Arabic and English. However, only English is growing because of its use as a second language. More people are learning English in China today than are speaking it in North America. That is an astonishing statistic.

More surprisingly, perhaps, English has carried all before it in continental Europe. Some 70 per cent of all communications between European Community institutions and those institutions in the rest of the world is carried out in English. The European Commission's recent task force on skills and mobility proposed that all pupils in the European Union should master two languages in addition to their own, but that one of those two should be English. It argued that by 2005 the early acquisition of language skills should be attained by all eight year-olds.

English is the language of science, with 70 per cent of scientific theses now being published in English. It is the language of information technology, aviation and globalisation. Therefore, why should we be so concerned by the poverty of our own foreign language skills and those of the Anglo-Saxons more generally?

One of the reasons is the depth of that poverty. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, referred to Nuffield's findings that nine out of 10 children in this country stop learning any foreign language after the age of 16. Eurostat's recent research shows that our foreign language skills are the lowest in the European Union; fewer than one in five people in this country say that they have any foreign language ability whatever.

Perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that the situation in the United States is no better, but we certainly cannot share the attitude of the perhaps apocryphal account of the American Senator who, giving evidence on the Hill explaining why he did not think that foreign language learning was important to the United States, said that if English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it was quite good enough for the United States.

Quentin Peel put a related point well in the Financial Times last year when he wrote: The English-speaking world has got itself into a dreadful bind. We think we understand what makes other people tick—but only if they tell us in English". There are three overwhelmingly important reasons why we must make good the linguistic shortfall in our schools and also in our universities from where many of our teachers come. The first is that unless we act the situation will grow worse. A-level figures for the past decade show that the fall in the number of students taking qualifications in A-level German and English has fallen steadily—in the case of French by more than 30 per cent. The situation in the universities is equally worrying. The survey carried out last year by the University Council of Modern Languages, which looked at 30, universities saw that in 77 of those universities one or more of the language courses, or of whole languages, had been cut out of what they were offering. That is potentially a disaster. Samuel Johnson, who knew a lot about languages, said of them that they are the dress of thought and the pedigree of nations.

Our political and economic future turns on our ability to understand, to work with, to persuade, to listen, to live with and to sell to our colleagues in Europe. We must accept that, despite the 70 per cent of EU communications, linguistic pluralism is with us and, thank goodness, in Europe. If we ignore that reality, language not the mythical fog will isolate the Continent from us and us from the Continent. Seriously, I believe that our failure to play our full part in Europe during the past half century stems in substantial part from linguistic inadequacy. The reverse is also true: that linguistic competence opens up both career opportunities and economic success, as recent research has clearly shown.

So, what to do? The Government have responded to the Nuffield report by setting up a steering group. They have done a little more than setting up a steering group but not all that much more. The issue we must consider is that at the heart of the inquiry was the call for a national strategy on languages. Ultimately, we do not want a study group, a talking shop; we need a strategy. It needs to be a national strategy. It also needs to be able to plan across other departments of state. It is not an issue only for schools or even universities. It must cross all relevant departments of state; that is, the Treasury, the Home Office, the Department of Trade and Industry and so forth.

The Government also state in their response that in time—and they give a time—every child in every school between the ages of seven and 11 will have the opportunity to learn another language That is splendid, but what does "have the opportunity to learn" actually mean? Of course good schools will offer something to motivated children, or to children motivated by their parents, as private schools already do. But the crisis in our language capability means the curriculum; it means building it into the system. I would like to know where the Minister stands on that.

In conclusion, it is our great good fortune and our real advantage that in an age of globalisation English has become a global language. But if we use that as an excuse to allow our own foreign language abilities to wither away, if we do not have a strategic and national action to reverse the decline, an extraordinary irony will emerge: that in a world which speaks our language we will be increasingly isolated; that in an integrating Continent we will become more and more insular; and that in a global village we will be choosing to live on our own. I hope that we are not confronted with that irony.

6.1 p.m.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for introducing this debate and for giving us the opportunity to discuss an important report which raises serious issues for our whole approach to foreign languages. I am a graduate in French, have taught French and since have learnt Russian out of necessity and interest. I shall reflect on my experiences and later relate them to the current realities for young people today.

It seems to me that the successful learning of anything depends on opportunity, motivation and inspiration, often from good teaching and the organisation of the learning. That is unless, of course, you are born into it, Harry Potter-like, but I suspect that that is rarely the case. Good teaching is about love of the subject, wanting to transfer that love to others and having resources available to aid in teaching.

In my view, there are three major influences on the teaching and learning of foreign languages in schools: culture, motivation and the school curriculum. I shall say a little about each in the short time available. I have talked to teachers and head teachers in primary schools and comprehensive schools to inform me about this and there are some interesting thoughts and conclusions.

First, I shall talk about culture. When I was learning French in a small grammar school in the small, mainly working-class town where I grew up in the north of England, there were few windows on the world: little travel, little television, no Internet and few people from overseas. I learnt French and went on to study it at university because of two inspired English national teachers who taught French, and because I was good at it. The world has changed. I do not believe that there is any such thing as being naturally good at languages. Witness those children who are brought up to speak at least two languages. They may have parents of different nationalities, or they learn through necessity. The children of friends in the Netherlands have spoken English from an early age. I am told that boys in this country are deeply resistant to learning foreign languages. Perhaps, as has already been pointed out, greater use of IT would inspire them, as well as girls, to participate.

This is part of the problem. A second language around the world is usually English. That is due in part to our colonial heritage, but also to the strength of the American, Canadian and Australian cultures. Ambivalence towards Europe, let alone other parts of the world except perhaps the United States, may be giving our children messages that it is not important to learn languages other than English. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, also referred to this issue.

The culture in which the young people of today are growing up is obviously different from when I was at school. We may be convinced that young people need another language, but do we sufficiently integrate into our system the notion that learning another language is not for purely academic reasons any more, but for practical reasons such as business or tourism? It appears that the focus in schools is still on French or German. Surely for commercial and practical reasons the Spanish language would be of more use. What of Japanese, or a Chinese language?

Young people need to be strongly motivated to learn another language and they have to see its relevance. I learnt Russian because I was engaged in some work in the former Soviet Union. Diplomats frequently need to learn one or more sometimes incredibly obscure languages in a very short time before they are posted. How do we motivate and teach young people? In London and in other towns around the United Kingdom, I see young people from a variety of other countries serving in shops and bars, going to college, or working in business for a year or two to learn English. Do our young people do the same? If not, what is stopping them? Is it lack of interest in language?

I turn now to the curriculum. Given where we are in curriculum development, surely SATs should include a foreign language. This would affect both motivation and the curriculum. The curriculum is tricky. There are not enough teachers of foreign languages overall, and there are very few male teachers of foreign languages. If a school has no sixth form, it is difficult to recruit and retain language teachers. In primary schools where, as has already been pointed out, it should all begin, there are few specialists. Perhaps this is less of an issue where strong links are formed between primary and secondary schools, so that a language teacher can work in both.

I believe that reform at A-level in the delivery of modern languages has been unimaginative. We need to look towards a baccalaureate type of offering where language is integrated into other areas of learning. Lower down in the curriculum, resources still seem to encourage reading and writing in French and other languages, although I realise that speech is now included. Furthermore, topics still seem to focus on the home, shopping, pets, friends and a bit of football. Perhaps that does not motivate every child. The shape of the school day is often not conducive to the effective teaching of language. Language teaching needs regular short slots rather than an hour once or twice a week.

Young people and older people in this country can learn languages, and many do so. I cannot think that we are genetically resistant to foreign languages. I should like to ask the Minister where there are examples of good practice in the learning and teaching of foreign languages in this country and abroad. If there are good models, what are we doing to use them to our own advantage? I look forward to the following speech.

6.7 p.m.

Baroness Michie of Gallanach

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to make my maiden speech during this debate and to congratulate my noble friend on having secured it on the important subject of foreign languages in schools. I also thank him for his kind words, although I should let him know that I am no expert, and certainly no expert on the teaching of foreign languages in the English education system. I shall try to concentrate on one particular part of the Nuffield report.

First, may I tell your Lordships that I had the honour and privilege to represent Argyll and Bute in another place for 14 years. I should add that I stood down; I did not lose my seat. As many noble Lords know, it is a large rural area with 26 islands served by the famous Caledonian MacBrayne ferry company. It has more sheep than people and is quite the most beautiful constituency in the United Kingdom. I realise that there may be objections to that assertion. The people are kindly and hospitable. The weather is variable and the midges wear tackety boots. Despite the latter, I recommend it to all in this House as a holiday destination. Noble Lords can be assured of a warm and friendly Highland welcome, often a bilingual welcome.

Some noble Lords will recall that, on entering this Chamber, I repeated the Oath of Allegiance in Gaelic and I am grateful to the Procedure Committee for allowing me to do so. Thus I was following in the footsteps of my father, the late Lord Bannerman of Kildonan, who began his maiden speech in Gaelic, much to the astonishment of all. There is, unfortunately but understandably, no record of it in Hansard.

Many noble Lords were appreciative of hearing what is known—feadh na gaidhealtachd, throughout Gaeldom—as the language of Eden. I am grateful for that support. Not all noble Lords were happy, as reported in a certain London-based newspaper which has only a very limited readership north of the Border.

That brings me to my particular interest in this debate. While Scottish Gaelic is an indigenous language, the report of the Nuffield Language Inquiry devotes a whole chapter to the indigenous languages of the United Kingdom, which include Welsh, Gaelic, Irish and Cornish, and recommends that we should learn from, and draw upon the extensive and valuable experience of, bilingual education from nursery and primary schools to university and beyond. The report goes on to point out that there is much that can be extrapolated from their experience and applied to the teaching and learning of other languages in all parts of the country.

The report also draws attention to the influence of the media, which can and must play an important part—as it has in Wales. We in Scotland look with envy upon the dedicated Welsh language channel, S4C. Once digital broadcasting covers the whole country, we hope to have such a dedicated channel, particularly in the Highlands.

As has been mentioned, one of the universal problems is the chronic shortage of language teachers. This is highlighted in the Nuffield report. It states in no uncertain terms that the United Kingdom desperately needs many more of them.

Last year, on European languages day, a debate was held in the Scottish Parliament. The then Education Minister, Jack McConnell, now First Minister, indicated that over the next three years the Scottish Government would provide funding and support for the learning of foreign languages, including Gaelic, and for the professional development of language teachers.

The demand for entrance to Gaelic-only units in primary schools continues to grow, and that is good progress. There is also a great demand for Gaelic-only pre-school education. These groups are very often run by parents. There is no question of compulsion, but it is a hard battle which we are determined win to keep the language alive.

Since 1707 until fairly recently, for Gaelic it has been downhill all the way—proscribed, denigrated, ridiculed and forbidden in schools, even in playgrounds. So we await with some trepidation the results of the census which will reveal the numbers of Gaelic speakers in Scotland. Will they have fallen again?

To lose one of the oldest languages in Europe, so rich in literature, music, poetry and song, which has so enhanced our heritage, our culture, our traditions and values, would be nothing short of criminal. It would be a loss not only to Scotland but to the United Kingdom and, indeed, the whole world.

Finally, I have tried to demonstrate that those who are native Gaelic speakers, using their mother tongue and bilingual from an early age, with English their second language, have a head start when it comes to learning other languages. The same goes for Welsh. It is a way of trying to persuade people in this country that they should learn foreign languages. In the Highlands it now has economic as well as cultural benefits. There, people are well placed to learn, understand and appreciate others on the international and world stage.

6.24 p.m.

Lord Wilson of Tillyorn

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Michie of Gallanach, and to congratulate her on an excellent maiden speech. She said that she is not an expert in language but clearly she is an expert, as evidenced by her passionate and understandable espousal of the cause of Gaelic. It is nice, too, that she is following in the footsteps of her well-known father, Lord Bannerman of Kildonan, who, sadly, was a Member of your Lordships' House for a relatively short time.

The noble Baroness is not only an expert on language but on many other issues, including practically every agricultural subject on the west coast of Scotland. In the past, we used to meet mainly in her beautiful constituency—from which she was not pushed but fell—in Oban and at events such as the Argyllshire Gathering. I do not think she ever took part in tossing the caber, but, in whatever equivalent pastime there may be in your Lordships' House, she will be an outstanding performer—as she has been already in making her wonderful maiden speech and in being, I believe, the first person ever to take the oath in Gaelic. Long may we continue to hear from her.

In congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, on introducing the debate, I should declare two interests—neither of which is financial. I am a chairman of the governors of a school in Scotland and I am a member of the Board of the British Council.

Let me start with a brief story. Not long ago, I was in Amsterdam, and in the early evening I went out for some exercise. I was going along a rather dark road beside a canal and I was accosted by a large, tough looking young man, who made some obvious demands of me in Dutch. I said that I did not understand Dutch, whereupon he repeated the request for financial assistance in English. I said to him, "I am terribly sorry, but when I am running in a tracksuit I do not normally have any money in my pocket". Whereupon I received the charming answer, "Oh well t hen, I do hope you have a nice evening".

I am not trying to suggest that we should expect all muggers in Britain to be bilingual—let alone that we should train them to be so—but that story makes the obvious point that in much of continental Europe, particularly in countries such as the Netherlands, being bilingual is natural. Sadly, that is very far from true here.

One of the most striking statistics to come out of the Nuffield report, to which the noble Lord, Lord Williams, referred, is the fact that less than one in 10 young people continue to study a foreign language after the age of 16. That is a horrifying statistic.

I do not wish to dwell for too long in a short time on European languages—many other noble Lords are far more qualified to do so than I am—except to make two points. First, it is not only highly desirable to learn a European language but it is significant in terms of jobs for young people. If two people—one from the UK and one from Europe—with the same kind of qualifications apply for a job, but the person from Europe speaks more than one language, it is obvious that the job will go to the person who speaks more than one language. It is an economic necessity.

Secondly, it comes out of the Nuffield report that, perhaps, we over concentrate on French—more people study French and more people become teachers of French and so on ad infinitum. Surely we need more people to study and then teach German and Spanish.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, also mentioned the fact that, contrary to what one might think, more people are now, surprisingly, using non-English languages to access the Internet. If one looks at that statistic—as the newspapers have pointed out and common sense suggests—one can see that, if not now then very soon, the majority of those people will be speaking and accessing the Internet in Chinese. There are some 1.3 billion people in China, of which some 300 million are studying English. How many people do we have here who are studying Chinese?

But it does not stop at the main oriental languages such as Chinese or Japanese, there is an important point to be made about the lesser used and lesser known languages. Surely this was emphasised to us all in the aftermath of the events of 11th September. It is a remarkable fact that the Foreign Office was able to bring out of retirement and produce as the Prime Minister's Special Envoy to Afghanistan someone who spoke Tajic, Uzbek, Farsi, Dari and, indeed, Russian—which is no mean feat. It is very much to the credit of the Foreign Office and some other departments that they continue with the teaching of these relatively unused languages. We never know when we are going to need them and we should continue to teach them. It may not be a main priority, but we need to do it.

There are rays of sunshine in the dark picture painted by the noble Lord, Lord Williams. They include good initiatives at various levels—some under the auspices of the British Council, whose reputable Central Bureau has been incorporated with the Council's Education and Training Group. Some 2,500 foreign language assistants are teaching in UK schools. Thanks to substantial European funding through the Socrates programme, some 50,000 pupils are working on projects involving schools and colleges in Europe. The Leonardo Da Vinci scheme provides for 2,500 young trainees and workers to be sent abroad on placements.

As to the private sector, I am particularly impressed by the sponsorship of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and the Department for Education and Skills in promoting the study of Chinese. It embraces some 30 schools in England, and 200 students and teachers went to China for intensive language study. I understand that there have been discussions to expand that scheme to Scotland, which I hope will happen.

It is good to encourage young people to take an interest in Chinese, even if they do not master it at school. It is fascinating for even a primary schoolchild to know that when the Chinese characters for woman and child are put together, it means good. If the character for the sun and moon are put together, it means bright. Even more fun, if one puts the character for a pig under that for a roof, it means family or home.

Much is going on at the moment but more needs to be done. We need a coherent strategy. The vision is there but we need to make it reality. I know from my inquiries that all that is close to the Minister's heart. I hope that when she responds, she will be able to assure the House that there will be provision to match the vision.

6.32 p.m.

Lord Radice

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Michie, who was a good colleague in the other place. I am glad that we are together again in this House and I congratulate her on her maiden speech. I apologise to my noble friend Lord Williams for arriving late; the debate started earlier than I expected. However, my noble friend gave me a preview of his speech, so I know what he said in the part that I did not hear.

My noble friend is a very able Member of the House and a fine cricketer. He is also a distinguished biographer of not only Bradman but, more relevant to this debate, his biographies of de Gaulle and Adenauer are arguably the best studies of their subject in the English language. My noble friend could not have written those works without his command of French and German. I am nothing like as good at languages as my noble friend or others who have spoken. Despite having an outstanding teacher, my German is still poor.

My French is better. I have even made a speech in French in the Assemblée Nationale, as has my leader. I admit that my accent is appalling and my grammar still erratic. All the same, it is one of the great pleasures of my life that I am able to communicate freely with the French on my frequent trips across the Channel.

There is a general consensus, reflected in the debate, that the teaching, learning and understanding of foreign languages is a national disaster area. We are caught in a vicious circle of declining A-level results, an inadequate number of teachers and a poor general grasp of language. That is a disgrace. It is bad for the country that only 25 per cent of British people are able to communicate in another language.

However, without a strong government lead that strong consensus will not result in decisive action. Because English is the major world language for the moment and the most common spoken within the European Union, there is not the political will to do anything serious about our poor record. If English was not the main language, we would have to do something—in the same way as have the Swedes and the Dutch. We continue to believe that provided we shout loud enough, the rest of the world—including our closest European neighbours—will understand.

That attitude helps to explain the Government's inadequate response to the devastating Nuffield report, which shows that we have the worst record in language teaching of any country in the European Union.

We all welcome the increase in specialist language schools, such as that attended by one of my grandchildren. There are more than 100 such schools and I hope that there will be more. I welcome the Government's promise to take the issue more seriously, but why have they not committed themselves to making the teaching of foreign languages obligatory at primary level—at least as a long-term objective? I have seldom read anything more depressing and defeatist than the report of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which advised against a statutory requirement. If French and German primary schools can observe one, why not British schools?

I accept that the shortage of teachers is a serious problem. I do not write it off, as did the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. What about employing teachers from abroad, as my noble friend suggested? What about using teachers from the growing number of specialist secondary schools in primary schools for an hour a week? What about attracting retired teachers back to work? If we are serious, we must do something serious.

What are the Government doing about the fact that only 10 per cent of GCSE passes and only 4 per cent of A-level passes are in foreign languages? The A-level situation is deteriorating, which is a totally inadequate platform for ensuring that the nation is linguistically equipped for the modern world. Establishing more specialist schools is not a strong enough answer, although it is a good measure in itself. What are the Government doing to ensure that people can acquire a foreign language after the age of 16, where they have not had the chance before?

The Government must make a more serious response to Nuffield. Unless there is radical action on the lines proposed by my noble friend Lord Williams and other speakers, the situation will continue to deteriorate. That will be bad for UK citizens and bad for the United Kingdom. I hope that the Government will say something this evening that will put my fears at rest.

6.39 p.m.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, it is good that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, has so speedily followed up the European Year of Languages with this debate—in which I am happy to endorse most of the points made by most speakers, as I am to declare my interest as a past president of the Institute or Linguists and a current adviser to language providers and educational publishers.

In a series of articles in the Observer written nearly 30 years ago, I was already arguing that the relatively recent status of English as a world lingua franca was in danger of being to our disadvantage—making us think that we needed to learn no foreign language. Now, as more and more well-educated, bilingual youngsters from the Continent are snapped up by British employers in preference, as the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, has just pointed out, to our own monolingual youth, these disadvantages have become ever more apparent.

One of my Observer articles was entitled "English is not enough". The same words head the Executive summary of the Nuffield report which is the basis for this debate, as they have been repeated by the noble Lord, Lord Williams. Indeed, it is true to say that these words have become so familiar as to seem like a familiar mantra. Yet in many ways our institutions, industrial and commercial firms, tacitly ignore them as they rely on translators, foreign employees or, as the noble Lord, Lord Radice, has just said. on just shouting louder. How many invite statements about language qualifications in their job adverts? How many of their switchboard operators can cope with incoming calls even in such unexotic languages as French? How many of our ubiclitous news gatherers and reporters rely on interpreters for their "pretend" interviews even in Frankfurt or Paris? How many, indeed, of our politicians support the Government's welcome of the Nuffield report?

I ask that because I have with me a letter to a British educational publisher from a British parliamentarian—not, I hasten to say, a parliamentarian here in Westminster but one in the European Parliament. He had been asked how useful a knowledge of a foreign language was to him in that multilingual environment. I quote from his reply: The multilingual environment in which I work is, from my point of view at least, an English language environment". Why, he went on, would he ever, seek to learn a foreign language", since all the people that matter would before long be speaking English? Some MEP!

Given that the Government would heartily repudiate such parochial arrogance—and I echo the word used by the noble Lord, Lord Williams—I ask the Minister when can we expect a firm commitment to a national language policy as robust as that of France and Germany, our partners in the "Club of Three" meeting, held in London just two months ago.

As the Minister will know, Jack Lang has already implemented a policy whereby every child in France will begin a first foreign language at the age of six, take up a second language at the age of 11 and maintain both to the age of 16. Will the Minister endorse the words of her noble friend Lady Kennedy, spoken at that November meeting, that a foreign language should be introduced in every primary school and that pupils should have two foreign languages by school-leaving age?

Of course, I acknowledge, as other noble Lords have done, the progress we have made over the past dozen years; the introduction of one foreign language at least in the national curriculum and the recent surge in the number of specialist language colleges, many of which, although by no means all, are doing excellent work.

Of course I acknowledge too the problem of teacher recruitment. But this is an area, as several speakers have pointed out, with lots of scope for sharing resources with other EU countries, as the German Ambassador, Dr Hans-Friedrich von Ploetz, has been tirelessly repeating to various UK audiences up and down the country in the past year or so.

Perhaps I may say a word about the estimated 3 million in our midst who come from non-Anglophone countries. Dr Philida Schellekens was recently commissioned by the Department for Education to study the extent to which those 3 million were effectively excluded from employment through a poor command of English. She found, horrifyingly, that there might be as many as 1.5 million. Clearly, their English is a problem that has to be addressed urgently so that, for their sake as well as ours, these people can be absorbed into our institutional and economic life. But that is to address the downside of this issue.

But there is an upside of the issue that we in the UK have scarcely begun to appreciate. A poor command of English does not mean a poor command of language. More than any other country in Europe we have people in their hundreds of thousands with a perfect command of foreign languages for which there is an increasing need and which we could never supply starting from scratch even though, as the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, has pointed out, the Foreign Office, by its encouragement of special language schools, does a lot to maintain it.

How long would it take to teach a police officer enough Turkish for service in Wood Green? There are 70,000 Turkish speakers in London alone from whom such a police officer could be recruited. Staying with London, we have over 100,000 speakers of Hindi/Urdu, ditto of Bengali, ditto of Gujerati, ditto of Punjabi. We also have many thousands whose language is Arabic, Chinese and up to 300 other exotic languages, as we call them.

London is exceptional only in respect of numbers. A similar rich linguistic array can be found in cities up and down the country—in the Midlands and the North, as we know well. We should be eagerly and gratefully making use of these resources in firms, in the social services and elsewhere. I note that Lord Justice Auld, in his recent report on the criminal courts, deplored the serious shortage of interpreters in just such languages. The paradox of famine in the midst of plenty! I hope that this aspect of immigrant minority languages will be taken into account by the Minister in the language statement which I hope that she will make.

6.48 p.m.

Lord Puttnam

My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Williams, for drawing our attention to the Nuffield report and for providing a very useful and timely debate. I thank too the noble Baroness, Lady Michie, for a beautifully judged maiden speech. Looking back at my own maiden speech, I am full of envy. I wish to make reference to the heroic efforts of the European ambassadors, led by the German ambassador to this country, in trying to draw our enlightened self-interest to the problem that this debate highlights.

Most of my life I have spent making essentially cultural arguments. Today I restrict myself to the practical, and possibly the achievable, aspects of this debate. The opportunity to learn must, and I am sure, will be enhanced and improved at primary level. That is an essential component of whatever response the Government make today and in future.

I believe it is also true to say that motivation must be significantly improved across all areas of education, not just in primary, but in secondary and adult education. So more opportunity and far better motivation are the challenges that face us. Interestingly enough, my noble friend Lady Massey used the exactly the same words in her speech.

That said, I find myself in agreement with many of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas—particularly in regard to the utilisation of ICT and its relevance and importance in the future, not merely across the broad spectrum of the curriculum but specifically in language teaching.

Today, I am almost a professional school visitor. I spend most of my life visiting schools, secondary and primary for the most part. I have, therefore, become hypersensitive to the realities as perceived at the chalk face. Foreign language ability is not a basic skill for students in this country, as they understand matters. To attempt to make such an argument does this debate, and our fairly well shared position, no particular favours.

Children are very smart. You cannot "con" them into something which, on a day-to-day basis, they know not to be true. A knowledge of foreign languages, for the most part English, is a core, or a basic, skill for ambitious French, German or other European students. They know it. But to pretend that there is a precise equivalence is wrong. As I say, I do not believe that we advance our case by taking that position. Frankly, our young people know better. Therefore, the real challenge is motivation—for the enhancement of their personal, cultural, and in many cases their professional lives by the addition of another language.

By way of doing my homework for the debate, I sought the help of the CBI, which was very supportive. Yes, more jobs require more languages. Yes, multilingual jobseekers are to an extent advantaged, and on occasions their pay mirrors that advantage—but marginally. The CBI did a quick snapshot over the past three days of international businesses. The response was fairly consistent. It can be summed up in a statement from a very large employer—a huge law firm—in this country. It told the CBI that it was important to emphasise that it does not look for languages in recruiting. The key skills that it looks for are, attention to detail, commercial awareness and dealings with others". It states that it will invest in trainees' language skills as and when they are needed and as and when it finds the right candidates. In fairness, I imagine that much the same is true of the Foreign Office or even of the police force.

Young people know that language is not a core skill. But it is our job to make sure that they see it as a thoroughly desirable skill. In a desperately crowded secondary curriculum, we must make the point that language skills are very desirable. However, they fall some way short of the claim that they are "basic" skills. I believe that that will be one of the factors that will influence not only the Minister's response but, indeed, government action in years to come.

6.53 p.m.

Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for enabling us to have this debate. I declare an interest as chairman of the Nuffield Foundation.

The reason why we set up the inquiry was not that it was a new task. As the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, reminded us, there have been many endeavours to take a grip on the way in which languages have been taught, provided for and respected in this country. We turned to this somewhat Sisyphean task again because we thought that there might be one new way in which to look at it. We are grateful to the co-chairs of the inquiry, Sir Trevor McDonald and Sir John Boyd, for carrying this through.

The perspective and intention of the report was that it should not be a provider's forum, that we should not round up those who are keen on languages and those who teach languages—who would then indeed say that languages should be more widely taught. If you round up the usual suspects, you will get the reply, "Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?". We also attempted to look at the demand side. That is why there were people on the inquiry drawn from business, banking and the Civil Service, and it is why we inquired widely of employers and of the tourist industry. Indeed, we received much evidence that is not entirely congruent with the evidence reported by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam.

This approach was taken not because we doubt, or doubted, the intrinsic educational worth of language learning, the importance of understanding the richness of more than a single literature, the importance of understanding other cultures, the deeper understanding that we all have of our own languages; nor was it simply because we know that economic arguments can cast long educational shadows. It was taken because we wanted to test the evidence for the claim that there is no demand for languages and language learning. We found that there was demand from pupils and parents and from employers and business.

It is hard to get the statistics together. It is a mark of the lack of seriousness with which we regard this matter that good statistics are not available. But there is an enormous amount of evidence of language learning at considerable inconvenience and expense to families outside the educational structures. What is spoken of as language provision in primary schools is all too often a French club—which is indeed an opportunity, but is voluntary; it is taken up by some children and not by others, and parents often pay for these kinds of activities. We also found a great deal of evidence that employers sought languages and could not recruit in this country. A good example was of airports being unable to recruit ground staff with elementary language skills and therefore recruiting people in Spain.

The inquiry's central recommendation, therefore, was that government should adopt a national languages strategy. Other noble Lords emphasised that need. In referring to a "strategy", the inquiry does not mean "aspiration" or "enthusiasm", although of course such ideas are not redundant. What we were looking at was a landscape of fragmentation and failure, which I fear are growing.

I have mentioned what is not happening in primary schools. We also know that language provision is fragmented and often discontinuous in secondary schools. There is a very large opt-out after GCSE. There is the fact that the new AS-level has led to only an 8 per cent increase in language enrolments. Had it been proportionate, assuming that people are going from three to four subjects, it should have been a 33 per cent increase. The figure for university entrants is down. That for PGCE entrants is down, and that for entrants into the teaching profession is down.

There is a thin ray of sunshine in the language colleges. But let us not over-estimate it. It may be bright, but it is reaching less than 2.5 per cent of the age group. That is not a strategy. The statistics are poor, and I cannot give more accurate ones than that. Also poor is the provision of accurate standards of measuring competence for those who are learning languages in a prosaic, useful and aspiring way.

We should remember that more people in the world are bilingual or multilingual than are monolingual. The noble Baroness, Lady Michie of Gallanach, reminded us that that is not unknown in these islands. Our report places great importance on the indigenous languages of these islands and on the community languages in our immigrant communities, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Quirk.

Our young people are as talented as any. But they are being denied the opportunity, the encouragement and the basic provision. A child can be as keen as he or she may, but if the basic provision is lacking. nothing substantial happens. In consequence, children miss out at later stages on the valuable experience of working abroad in a way that their contemporaries elsewhere in Europe do not miss out. Furthermore, they may miss out on jobs at home. I have mentioned ground staff at airports. Similar evidence is coming in from call centres, from tourism and from the City. Not all these jobs are trivial. Home languages are not supported. People who are able to speak another language often receive no support for becoming literate in that language.

I know that the Minister is aware of many of these problems and I hope that she may be able to answer just a few of the questions that arise out of the report. The central question is whether the Department for Education and Skills is going to propose a national languages strategy. If so, when does the Minister expect a draft to be available? It would also be interesting to know whether such a strategy—if it is to be made available—will set targets for participation rates, not for opportunity. Other noble Lords have cast doubt on whether opportunity is the right currency.

How will the Government address the crisis of supply? Nothing can be done overnight, but meanwhile we are fiddling while Rome is burning. This is not just a schools issue. It is a matter that extends through our educational structures, through all stages of education and into employment. If anything is a matter for joined-up government, this is it.

7 p.m.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, learning to speak another person's language is not just about being able to exchange words directly with another individual, important as that is. It has an added value, because in learning a language one learns about the culture, history and traditions that make that other person tick. It is therefore vital not only for jobs, as we have heard, but in developing international understanding and good will. That is why English alone is not enough. I thoroughly endorse that finding of the Nuffield report.

We are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for bringing this subject before us for debate today. Let us hope that what we have to say may help a little in the profile of language studies in this country.

I found a lot to agree with in the noble Lord's introduction to the debate and I have agreed with what many others have said, particularly those who are educational experts, which I cannot claim to be, in spite of my stint as a Minister in the Department of Education and Science, as it then was. I shall concentrate on the more general issue of motivation, which has also been touched on by many others.

I glanced at the Evening Standard last night and saw the headline, "Success—You're talking my language". The article went on to say that speaking another language automatically increases a person's job prospects and earning power. That is a good start. Can the Department for Education and Skills make a start by encouraging the Civil Service at least to request that applicants state on their forms their ability to speak other languages. On one occasion at the Department of Social Security I was horrified to discover that a young man who spoke fluent Japanese had been working in a social security office. I succeeded in getting him moved to the Department of Trade and Industry, which seemed a much more appropriate place for him. It would give an indication of the importance that the Government give to languages if the Civil Service considered putting it on its applications forms.

From my experience, the ability to speak languages—in my case French and Spanish fluently and just a smattering of German—has been of enormous value. I hesitate to say that I may not have been the best solicitor in the world, but I was rather more unique as a solicitor who also spoke Spanish and French fluently and was therefore able to work in those countries. My knowledge of Spanish also enabled me to obtain a fellowship to study in Latin America, which started my love affair with that part of the world. I also found it extremely useful as a Member of the European Parliament—unlike the example quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Quirk. Even now, I find that ability very useful as a member of the parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe.

As others have said, British children are not more stupid than, for example, Dutch or Swedish children, who seem capable of holding intelligent conversations in three or four languages at an early age. Children from many other countries do not seem to think about it; they just get on with it. However, British children seem capable of learning the language of IT—the language of the computer and of the Internet. I can speak some foreign languages with some fluency, but I am not much good in computerspeak. Why is that? It is because I have not knuckled down and learnt how to use a computer or its specialised terminology and I have not really practised. It must he brought home to children that a knowledge of foreign languages does not come out of the atmosphere, as one's mother tongue seems to do—it has to be learnt. Good teachers who motivate their pupils are vital to achieving that, as the Nuffield report and others have said. Information technology may be another useful tool, as my noble friend Lord Lucas and others have said.

We must bring home to young people how important the knowledge of another language can he to succeed in finding a job and for their future careers. One of the most useful suggestions so far in the debate about how languages are taught came from the noble Baroness, Lady Massey. She said that languages should be taught in frequent short slots rather than for two long periods in the week. I found that a novel suggestion, but it seems a good idea.

I have a special plea to make, at which many of your Lordships will not be surprised. I declare an interest as president of Canning House, the Hispanic and Luso Brazilian Council. The noble Lord, Lord Watson of Richmond, referred to, I think, five global languages. I have been brought up to believe that after English, the most spoken languages in the world as mother tongues are Spanish and Portuguese, with Arabic coming close behind Portuguese. Spanish and Portuguese are certainly not sufficiently taught in our schools. I have had the opportunity to lead trade missions to Latin America and it has been clear that the members of those trade missions, however interested they were in obtaining work and links in the various countries of Latin America, had no idea about speaking Spanish or Portuguese. I wholeheartedly agree with the Nuffield findings and with many who have spoken that the United Kingdom needs competence in many languages, not just in French.

The final point that I would like to pick up was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Michie, in her excellent maiden speech. She pointed out convincingly that those who are brought up bilingual have a head start in learning another language. Many children in this country have that head start—not just those whose mother tongue is Gaelic or Welsh, but those who speak Hindi, Gujarati, Urdu and all the other languages enumerated by the noble Lord, Lord Quirk. We should not ignore that. Can the Government find a way to take advantage of it? I look forward to hearing from the Minister.

7.8 p.m.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick

My Lords, it is normal in this House for a speaker to congratulate the originator of a debate on its timeliness. I hasten to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, on bringing to our attention the important and disturbing report on language teaching sponsored by the Nuffield Foundation. It was of great value to have the chairman of that foundation to bring to our attention some of its salient points. However, I would not wish it to be thought that my commendation of timeliness extends to the Government's response to and handling of that report, which has been tardy and inadequate. I can only express the hope that the Government's words, and more importantly their actions, will from now on show a greater sense of urgency and commitment to remedy a situation that has continued to deteriorate since the report was issued.

The report rightly draws attention to the fact that the establishment of English as a—perhaps now trending towards the—global language is no adequate reason for the British to abandon all aspirations to linguistic competence in other languages. There is a paradox. The extent to which English is becoming the lingua franca—if that is not a contradiction—of the whole world is a huge asset to this country and one on which we need to capitalise to the greatest extent possible. It means that our universities are among the key service industries of the present and the future. It places added emphasis on the need to support the work of the British Council and the BBC World Service.

However, that spread of the English language—some references to that phenomenon err on the side of triumphalism—brings a risk that we will simply assume, like the MEP mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, that everyone who matters to us will be able to speak English anyway and we do not need to go to the trouble of learning any other language. Frankly, that is not the case. Our businessmen, our journalists, our academics, our diplomats and our military will simply not be able to function to full effectiveness if they are purely monoglot, if they turn their backs on and ignore the languages of the countries and the people with whom we need to work. We shall be progressively cutting ourselves off from huge resources of knowledge and information, and from the means of influence in any increasingly interdependent world; and we shall be doing so in a peculiarly selfish and arrogant way that will certainly arouse bitterness and, very probably, a backlash. One only has to look to see the sensitivities exposed by the present agonised debate in France over whether or not what is known as l'exception française has come to an end to get the flavour of that view.

So it really is important for us to de-couple in our minds the undoubted benefits that we derive from the spread of the English language and the need for a country like ours with global interests to sustain a substantial pool of people with linguistic knowledge that is not in any way diminished by the spread of English.

While we are on the utilitarian arguments for better language teaching and learning, there is another paradox of which most people seem to be unaware. It is one to which reference has been in this debate. Although statistics show that the employability of those who leave our schools and universities with language skills is very high, better, for example, than for computing, physical sciences, psychology or business studies—I am quoting from the 1998–99 Higher Education Statistics Agency figures—nevertheless, the numbers of those taking advantage of this employment-friendly trend is not increasing; it is decreasing. Perhaps that is not so surprising in a period of pretty full employment, such as we have experienced in the past. And perhaps the current slowdown in employment growth will affect it. But it is surely important that the Government and careers departments throughout the country draw full and frequent attention to the fact that language skills do help you get a job.

One of the most damaging consequences of the weakness of language teaching in this country and of the decline of A-level qualifiers in languages corning forward is the remorseless squeeze that this is putting on the language departments of our universities. Here I must declare an interest as pro-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham. As such, I was a member of a panel that reviewed the whole of our modern language provision in the university about a year ago. The situation is, indeed, a dire one. The supply of qualified students coming forward to study languages declines and, as it does so, the losses of the university's language departments mount and pressure comes on us to reduce the spread of languages that we offer. On that occasion, we at Birmingham were able to resist that pressure.

There is much that universities must do, in particular by recognising that the demands for single language and literature degrees is dropping and that more needs to be offered by way of combining language studies with the teaching of other professional skills, such as law, medicine, engineering or business. But, in the long run, if the supply of qualified students cannot be improved, the efforts of the universities will be nugatory. We shall find ourselves trapped in a vicious circle.

So what is to be done? I shall not try to re-invent the wheel and to improve on the excellent recommendations of the Nuffield report that we are debating this evening. But I shall focus on two of its proposals: the need to begin language teaching at an earlier stage in our schools; and the need to continue it longer, avoiding the sharp drop in 16 to 19 year-olds studying languages that is currently the case. Of the two, I suspect that the first is the more important. It seems rather fashionable currently for British politicians to sally forth from these islands to discover how those other Europeans, a mere 30 miles from us, are ordering their affairs. Well, a pilgrimage designed to discover how much earlier they begin the systematic teaching of foreign languages in their school curriculum could well be salutary. The answer varies, but the contrast with us is not, frankly, in dispute; and nor are the results that they achieve in language skills. The old Jesuit claim that if they could educate a child in its early years that was what mattered, surely applies to language teaching too. No one who has seen the ease with which young children are capable of acquiring language skills can doubt that this must be one part of any overall solution.

In concluding, I should just like to say a few words about the Diplomatic Service, to which I belonged for some 35 years. I was glad to see that the report commended the Diplomatic Service for the excellence and the breadth of its linguistic skills. I believe that that was well merited. I know from my own experience that our embassies and High Commissions around the world are the envy of their peers for being so well staffed with diplomats who can work in the language of their host country. But this does not come cheap. Scarce resources have to be diverted from other objectives to achieve it. I believe that that is a wise and proper allocation of those resources. But if the Diplomatic Service can recognise that it is in our national interest to have diplomats well qualified linguistically, why cannot this lesson be learned and applied more widely? I believe that that is the challenge facing the Government. I just hope that they will rise to it with a bit more vigour and purpose than they have displayed hitherto.

7.16 p.m.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, has bowled an unusually straight ball at the Minister. I am looking forward to seeing her hit it back very hard. I shall try not to repeat what noble friends have said, but it is nearly two years since the Nuffield Foundation established the inquiry to assess language needs for the 21st century; and what has happened? Other noble Lords have drawn attention to the delay and it must be said that much of the evidence goes back four years to 1998. It really is unsatisfactory when a government seem to ignore serious research by eminent persons, and let down an entire profession without, apparently, having made any tangible response beyond the usual promises—that is, until the noble Baroness arrived and embarked on a national strategy. We are told that the Government have accepted it but not acted on it, although we have heard hints that they are about to do so.

However, let that not distract us from the real disgrace and embarrassment which has concerned many of us; namely, that the English-speaking world for which Winston Churchill did so much in literary as well as in political terms has, paradoxically, abused its special position and is lamentably failing in this one respect to contribute adequately to 21st century culture. "Arrogance" was the word used by the noble Lord, Lord Williams. That includes all of us who, despite our training, stumble through European languages whenever we travel abroad, to be rescued quickly by kind friends.

We, the British, as we heard from the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Wilson, and my noble friend Lord Hannay, seriously underestimate the effect of our lack of language training on our ability to convince most of Europe and the rest of the world of our performance and good faith in commerce, foreign affairs, diplomacy, and many other fields.

The French, notably through L'Express magazine identified this problem years ago, but they have not convinced us or changed our Anglo-Saxon attitudes. With all the repercussions of 11th September, it is time that we put more resources, as the British Council is now doing in its own way, not only into more language training but also into achieving a wider understanding in Britain and perhaps in the United States of other cultures and traditions. I shall not expand on this idea. The noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, made mention of it and the Minister already knows of my interest in global citizenship.

The Nuffield report is remarkably mild in its condemnation of Britain's inadequacies, while so prolific in its practical recommendations. That is why it is surprising that it has been so long ignored. As someone who spent nearly 14 years trying to learn foreign languages, I empathised at once with Kevin from Buckingham School, who says on page 72 of the report that "they can be quite tedious". The quality of teaching has improved enormously since my time. The shortage of teachers is, of course, a more critical problem.

I followed my mother's advice, not my father's, and gave up history to study French and German at university. I did so with great enjoyment, but it was rather too late. However, by reading Balzac and Goethe and Heinrich Böll, as well as working in Europe, I finally appreciated the wealth of knowledge that exists outside this offshore island of ours. Later, travelling to Asia and Africa, I easily fell back into the Anglo-Saxon intellectual lethargy which is still with me now. I even read Thomas Mann in English. On holiday, I try to read Le Monde or the Süddeutsche Zeitung, but, regrettably, not Racine.

My main point, like that of the report, is to emphasise the importance of learning languages in early childhood. We have all seen wonderful examples of very young children, as young as four or five, quickly picking up language ability. It is vital that the Government act on Recommendations 5 and 6, on early language learning, and run with them both in primary and pre-primary schools. Perhaps the Minister has evidence that that is happening already. The proposal is so simple and so urgent. The French have done it for years, and now they have offered us help—and quite right too. More teachers from Europe seems an obviously good idea.

The Nuffield report calls for a national action programme and makes the interesting suggestion of establishing international primary schools. Surely that is the least we can do for our children as they become the leaders and opinion formers in the middle of this century. But we must do it now.

Another recommendation focuses on basic competence in one language for 16 year-olds. I welcome the specialist schools initiative, which I have seen in action and endorse, but I would not personally invest a lot of resources beyond the age of six, let alone 16. Like the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, I agree that we should promote the use of technology, school exchanges, websites and related techniques of language teaching. I could list other recommendations, but other noble Lords have already mentioned them.

As I said at the outset, the Government have been given a great opportunity in this report. It is high time that they seized it.

7.21 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for raising this very important issue. I also congratulate my noble friend Lady Michie on an excellent maiden speech.

This has been an excellent debate, although it has confronted us with many dire statistics—on the decreasing number of students studying modern foreign languages to GCSE and A-level, the decreasing number of university students and the closure of university departments. We have been told that one in 10 students drops languages after 16. I should think that the figure is even higher, as many students drop the subject at 14. Only five in 10 students are taking modern foreign languages to GCSE, and only 6 per cent—just over one in 20—are taking them at A-level.

One statistic is that 80 per cent of English people freely admit that they have no competence in any language other than English, compared with 13 per cent of people in Holland and a similar percentage in Sweden and Denmark. As we know, competence in other languages is important in smaller countries. However, as my noble friend Lord Watson reminded us, English is becoming a lingua franca around the world. Another statistic is that 200 million Chinese are learning English. Another statistic, however, is that—as the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, reminded us—the other 1.1 billion Chinese are not learning English. Perhaps we should be humble, not arrogant about the degree to which English is becoming a lingua franca.

The issue certainly matters. My noble friend Lord Watson gave a quote—I had it on my list—from Quentin Peel, who said: We think we understand what makes other people tick but only if they tell us in English". That is certainly the case.

Tribute has been paid to the German ambassador, Herr Doctor von Ploetz, for all his efforts in this country to promote the extension of modern foreign language teaching. He has said that learning languages is the key to mutual understanding. Although it is true that we celebrate the cultural diversity of the European Union, as we do the cultural diversity of the world, we must know and understand something of the language, literature and history of those countries to share that cultural diversity.

I was interested that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, referred to the concept of international skills which emerged at the Lisbon conference. In relation to those skills, Ambassador von Ploetz said that, increasing awareness of cultural, communicative and analytical skills gained from learning a foreign language are vital to facing the challenge of the global knowledge economy". The noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, pipped me at the post by giving an Evening Standard quote that I too had picked out. Even the Evening Standard is now telling us that, speaking another foreign language automatically increases your job prospects". As the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, reminded us, even the British Airports Authority is having difficulty finding people with the necessary language skills to welcome people into this country. The same is true of the hotel and tourism industry.

The Nuffield report has won great acclaim, and I join others in praising it for its plethora of recommendations. A consistent theme, however, has been the need for a national strategy based on catching young people early and involving people in lifelong learning in every respect.

The French and the Germans have already moved forward on the Lisbon agenda. They are putting us to shame. The current aim in those countries is to introduce all primary school children to a modern foreign language and all secondary school pupils to a second modern foreign language, with the ultimate objective that all those leaving secondary school at the equivalent of A-level have two foreign languages. Furthermore, all students in those countries should be able to spend at least one semester abroad.

What are we doing in this country? I am sorry to tell the Minister that, like others, I really do not think that we are doing enough. We have established a national task force, but, at the moment, that is a talking shop and not a strategy. The Government would say that they have a strategy because they are establishing specialist schools. However, we have 3,400 secondary schools of which only 108—less than 3 per cent—are designated as specialist language schools.

The specialist schools are doing excellent work. We have one in Dorking that is acting as a hub, going into primary schools and helping with the continuing task in the local community. However, the school is in Dorking, not Guildford. What is happening in Guildford? We do not have a language specialist school, although we have a technology specialist school and an art specialist school. As a strategy, the scheme is full of holes. It is just not good enough.

The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, mentioned the QCA's rejection of the notion of introducing modern foreign languages into the primary school curriculum. Yet there is increasing evidence that those who start languages early not only learn them very well, but benefit from them in their other studies. My noble friend Lady Michie made the point that those who are bilingual are helped rather than hindered by their language skills.

The shortage of teachers in modern foreign languages is reaching crisis level, similar to the situation in maths. More teachers are leaving the profession than joining it. Schools are having to cut back on language teaching so that there are fewer pupils enthused with modern foreign languages and going forward with them at university. The situation is dire and I do not think that the Government are doing enough about it.

What would the Liberal Democrats do? First, we would introduce a modern foreign language at seven. We would like all primary schools to offer children the opportunity to learn a modern foreign language from seven onwards. We think that that is a good idea because of emerging evidence. Although all children may not be suited to such study, we would like most children to be given the opportunity.

Secondly, those noble Lords who follow the education press may have noted that my honourable friend Mr Phil Willis spoke at the north of England education conference. He hit the headlines when he suggested that the Liberal Democrats would like to see an end to the GCSE. We feel that the GCSE constitutes a narrowing of the curriculum. We need increasingly to look to a much wider curriculum that runs from the age of 14 through to 19 and offers children the opportunity of a wider spread of objectives rather than the relatively narrow channelling of those objectives through what was originally the academic GCE exam for the 20 per cent who attended grammar schools. The curriculum was widened somewhat with the introduction of the GCSE, but not nearly enough. If a wider curriculum is introduced, one can move towards the Nuffield report's suggestion; that is, instead of GCSE exams one has grades as in music teaching, for example, grades one, two and three. That is what we would like to see.

Thirdly, we certainly endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, suggested in terms of the right of a student to have a semester abroad. As regards teachers, every year we send thousands and thousands of students abroad as teachers of foreign languages. The training is short. After four months' intensive training one can acquire a certificate stating that one is a teacher of English as a foreign language. Why cannot we welcome many students and young people from abroad into our schools and colleges to teach foreign languages and enthuse and motivate our students on the same basis? I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

7.31 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for so ably introducing the debate. I am sad that my noble friend Lady Blatch who is present is recovering from an illness and therefore will not speak. I wish that she were speaking as the House is deprived of her wisdom and experience and will have to listen to me instead.

We welcome the report, but I hope that I shall be forgiven if I take a pragmatic approach. The premise that we must improve the teaching of foreign languages in our schools is something with which we can all agree. The solutions to the problem set out in the report are, as the Americans say, "Mom and apple pie". It sounds almost heretical to offer any criticism. However, the Government in their response, which welcomes the report, merely state: The Nuffield report sets challenging aspirations and strong vision". That and another telling phrase in the former Secretary of State's foreword to the response— we share its strategic aims"— suggest to me that there might be a pigeonhole waiting for some of the recommendations.

I certainly do not criticise the authors of the report who have clearly put a great deal of work and thought into it. The fault lies in an ambiguity or an omission in their terms of reference. The report states: What capability in languages will this country need in the next twenty years if it is to fulfil its economic, strategic, social and cultural responsibilities and aims and the aspirations of its citizens? The inquiry seemingly took its terms of reference to refer only to the learning of foreign languages. Although we agree that that is important we also believe that item number one on its agenda, especially if it was to consider how to improve the economic and social aspirations of all our children, ought to have been, first, that they are all fluent in English.

All four of my grandparents arrived in this country early in the 20th century speaking not one single word of English between them. Their children, all born in this country, were sent to school where they were taught—as all other children were in those days—in English. There is no point in the authors of the report paying tribute to what they say is, the global role of English, now essentially the language of international science, law, banking, technology and much else when scarce resources are spent in teaching children, for whom English is not the first language, in a multiplicity of other languages in schools, because that is what they speak at home. Encouraging and perfecting their fluency in English will do much more to improve their integration into British social and cultural spheres, for which the committee's terms of reference call. I believe that such a process would make it much easier for them later to learn other languages.

The former Secretary of State in his foreword to the Government's response also acknowledged what he called, the dominance of English as a world language". The report calls for a language to be a requirement for university entry and for designated vocational qualifications. I note that the Government's response does not endorse that. However, the most important linguistic qualification for university entry should be a working knowledge of not just English but also English grammar and English spelling.

The report calls for more resources for the teaching of foreign languages. That is something we can all support. The report wants languages to be designated a "key skill". The Government's response states: Language learning is indeed an important skill and we understand the rationale for the report's proposal". However, it makes only vague proposals on future intentions. There is no indication at all of where the money is to come from. Perhaps that is not surprising. Under the previous Conservative government spending on education between 1992 and 1997 was 5 per cent of GDP. In the previous Parliament that spending between 1997 and 2001 was reduced to 4.7 per cent. That represents a shortfall in education spending in Labour's first term of nearly £13 billion. I remember the Prime Minister's assertion in 1997 that his first three priorities in office would be "education, education, education".

The report also calls for the appointment of a languages tsar, or "supremo" as it calls it, to ensure successful implementation of the national strategy for languages". The Government's response merely offers "to consider the proposal". However, I should point out that there is already a "supremo" charged with the task: of ensuring that our children receive adequate language tuition—she is called the Secretary of State for Education.

A main problem in attaining the objectives set out in the report is the dire shortage of teachers acknowledged in the Green Paper published in February 2001 and commented on in many of the excellent speeches tonight. The Government's response claims an 11 per cent rise in the recruitment of people into secondary initial training as well as the recruitment of foreign nationals. That is commendable. However, there are between 24,000 and 25,000 schools in this country. I should be fascinated to know where language teachers for each of those schools will come from. That assumes that we are talking about only one language, whereas the report mentions more. How could that extra demand be met? Incidentally, I agree with my noble friend Lady Hooper and the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, as regards the importance of Spanish and with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, on Chinese and all the other interesting languages that noble Lords mentioned.

I understand that the German ambassador recently said that there is a surplus of teachers in Germany who may be able to assist us, assuming that the money can be found to pay them. The noble Lords, Lord Radice and Lord Quirk, also mentioned that point. Other noble Lords mentioned the excellent work of the German ambassador in this field.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority was asked to examine the idea of foreign languages being taught in the compulsory curriculum in primary schools. It reported that a considerable investment in teacher training would be required. The Government's response to the report was that they had no plans at present to make foreign languages compulsory in primary schools. Foreign languages have been compulsory in secondary schools since 1992 when the then Conservative government introduced the national curriculum. But last September for the first time 61 places were funded in various IT colleges around the country to train primary teachers to specialise in French. Will the Minister tell us what plans there are to expand that excellent initiative? What plans are there to increase language laboratory facilities in schools and after school clubs?

Time does not permit me to discuss all of the details in the report and the Government's response but I draw the attention of noble Lords to one more point. The Government very properly take credit for the establishment of what they call specialist language colleges. There are 99 of them so far and more to follow. I remind noble Lords that it was a Conservative government who introduced specialist schools, including language schools. It is the greatest form of flattery that the present Government have continued with that policy.

The report's objectives are highly commendable and entirely desirable, and we on these Benches endorse them. However, the Government's lukewarm and highly qualified welcome makes it clear that the priority should be to concentrate on literacy skills in English and to resolve the teacher shortage. That includes the need to reduce the dependency on supply teachers and on teachers who are teaching subjects in which they were not trained. It is also the case that until a sufficient cohort of school leavers are competent in one or more foreign languages, it will not be possible to provide language teachers for 25,000 schools.

As my noble friend Lord Lucas and I said, unless technology can be harnessed effectively and on a very large scale, many of the report's recommendations will not be deliverable. It is not possible to detect from the Government's response to the report what precisely they intend to do or what their timescale is. I am certain that the Minister will do her best to enlighten us on what their programme will be.

7.41 p.m.

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

My Lords, I begin by saying how delighted I am to see the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in her place. I look forward to many debates with her. I feel that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, was being rather modest; I was delighted that she participated in the debate.

I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel for initiating this debate, and to all noble Lords who have taken part, especially the noble Baroness, Lady Michie of Gallanach. It is surely an indication of the importance that your Lordships' House places on language teaching and learning that our debate has been of such quality.

I say to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that I perhaps hope to catch the ball rather than to bat it back. I share the view of my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel and other noble Lords on the importance of language learning to our social and economic success. I say that especially to the noble Lord, Lord Wilson. I strongly feel that learning a foreign language is not just about verbal exchange; it is also about encouraging intercultural understanding and tolerance and a sense of international or—I say this to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich—global citizenship.

An immense wealth of languages is spoken in this country. More than 300 languages are spoken in London alone, making it one of the most—if not the most—linguistically diverse cities in the world. Understanding that cultural and linguistic richness plays a critical role in promoting social inclusion, responsible participation and an understanding of cultural traditions in the UK and wider international communities.

My answer to the first question of my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel is yes, the Government do appreciate the importance of language learning. I also say to the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that, yes, we feel a sense of urgency. The Government were extremely grateful for the Nuffield report, which was summarised so succinctly by my noble friend Lord Williams and given greater explanation by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill. It laid out the issues and challenges that we face. We were pleased to respond to it. On my appointment I was delighted to find myself chairing the National Steering Group for Languages, which was charged with developing a languages strategy. I currently spend a great deal of my time on that, such is my view of its importance.

Even a cursory examination of the Nuffield report shows that there is much to do at every level of education if we are to turn the shafts of light that were described by my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel—I could also refer to the rays of sunshine that were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, and the ray of sunshine that was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill—into brightness everywhere. We need to be mindful of the work that is under way to lighten the load of teachers and of the priorities and targets that we have set ourselves.

As my noble friend Lord Williams said, it is people who will make the whole system work. As many noble Lords—not least the noble Baroness, Lady Miller—said, resources are important. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, languages do not come cheap.

The challenge that we face is to build simultaneously two pillars. They are the "motivation to learn", which was mentioned by many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Massey and my noble friend Lord Puttnam, and the "opportunity to learn". We have the foundations for our pillars but, at the risk of pushing this analogy too far, we need to get the right kind of bricks, bake them, cut them to size, reinforce the structure and build it to the right height.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, discussed her motivation to learn the computer and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, discussed motivation in the Diplomatic Service. In those two examples—the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, not learning the computer and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, discussing the example of those in the Diplomatic Service—we have, in a sense, laid out before us the whole issue of motivation.

There is much to celebrate in our society: the fact that one in five primary schools already provides some opportunities for language learning; the innovative work of some schools in promoting and supporting community languages; the development of 126 language colleges; the use of ICT as a tool to teach languages, such as Japanese; the push of business to see language as an important factor in recruitment and promotion; and the support of our European partners.

However, I have chosen not to spend my time on what is already a success, in the knowledge that noble Lords will join me in congratulating all those who make an important contribution; rather, I want to use this opportunity to share our thinking with noble Lords. These thoughts are a long way from being proposals, but they are indications of the seriousness with which we take this subject and our willingness to be open to ideas. In other words, rather than being the worked-up answer, this is the part of the exam question where you, the examiners, see the workings out—and, later, possibly the crossings out, too.

I mentioned motivation. I am particularly keen to motivate those young people who are making decisions about their futures. What do I believe will motivate them, and where should we start?

Practically every noble Lord in this debate has discussed the need to begin early. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, suggested the age of seven and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, suggested nursery age. I have seen examples of all such kinds of teaching, including that from the earliest years. A child in a nursery can be enriched by the language and culture of other nations through the benefit of other children who speak those languages—that should never be overlooked—and the benefit of those who work with them. The opportunities to study languages—whether in primary school or before—to have developed an interest in and perhaps even love for language and to have had, over time, the chance to study different languages, both in and out of school, are important. I do not believe that all language teaching needs to be, could be, or should be in school.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, said, there needs to be greater recognition of community languages, and opportunities for children to share their language with others. That fits in well with our strategy for an enriched curriculum at primary level, not at the expense of, but as part of, our drive for higher standards.

Lest any teachers are listening, we are not proposing a new SAT. We believe that the primary stage is where we should begin. I say to my noble friend Lord Radice that we asked the QCA for its views because that is what we should do. It is important that we use organisations that can offer expertise. It did not believe that it was currently appropriate to discuss a mandatory language at the primary stage. I shall return to what I believe we should be beginning to do.

The second part of motivation is to understand the importance of language learning for the future careers of young people. As our young people reach the age when they make choices about their future studies, they need to weigh up the potential for their career that language can give them. I believe that we have a huge amount to do in that area. We need to build active partnerships with businesses that can help by communicating their need for employees who have languages and to demonstrate the implications—financial and otherwise—of doing so.

Those are the motivating factors on which I believe we need to concentrate. We need creative and innovative ways of delivering those opportunities to children. The factors that determine how many of our young people will continue with language study to good effect are whether we can offer opportunities for younger children, whether we can motivate them to learn and whether we can demonstrate to young people the benefits of languages. The noble Lord, Lord Quirk, discussed the potential of journalists, switchboard operators and others. I argue that there are probably very few young people who really understand the different opportunities within the different professions and jobs, and their potential to enhance their careers as a consequence of language ability. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, with his background in universities, will be interested to know that, of the number of graduates who obtained a first degree in 1999–2000, 60 per cent of those who had studied languages were employed six months after graduation as a result of their studies.

How do we go about improving this situation? I believe that during the debate 13 languages were mentioned as being of key importance. That raises some difficulties for me in terms of where we begin in relation to primary education; or, rather, it would do if we were not extremely creative.

The system referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, is, in a sense, raised in the Nuffield report. The noble Baroness mentioned a matter that we have begun to explore, and it is one with which I am very taken; that is, the use of a system similar to that of accreditation in music. Schemes do exist that run along those lines, and all credit to them. Put simply, children and adults learn a variety of musical instruments in and out of school. In each case, they have an accreditation system, universally understood, called "grades 1,2,3" and so on. Why should that not be the case in respect of foreign languages, including, following such an eloquent maiden speech, Gaelic?

I start from the principle that such a system could be beneficial—not only to children but to anyone wishing to pursue languages at any point in their lives. Easily understood and recognised, it could provide a quality assessment—a matter referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill—in terms of primary languages, where the provision of a language club is not what we have in mind. It would enable children to use their after-school and weekend activities and link them more easily to their school learning. It would help secondary schools to understand what their newly arriving students have learnt and help to keep them motivated, rather than, as happens too often, allowing those students simply to hang around while the others catch up.

Such a system would make better use of peripatetic teaching and better use of those within our communities who are able to teach languages in better ways. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, referred to the wealth of talent in our communities that we are not able to access or use at this point. It would also allow recognition for children who already have more than one language. I think, in particular, of community languages. It would allow more choice than a GCSE or conversation-class route to language. It would allow us to put more on our CVs than "A smattering of French" or "I get by in Italian". It would also provide a route to life-long learning that is understood and accessible.

The thinking on this issue is at a very early stage and requires a great deal of exploration. However, I believe it to be only right and proper that I explain our current thinking to your Lordships and demonstrate that this is an area that we consider to be worthy of exploration. We are discussing the details of this matter with the subject associations and with CILT. But I am keen to demonstrate that we are looking for solutions that enhance the quality of learning not only for primary education but for life and, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, provide opportunities to learn.

In that context, we need to consider the use of ICT. I was most grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, believed that I had waxed enthusiastically about ICT. I do indeed and intend to continue to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, referred to what we are already beginning to think about. We have recently announced curriculum on line. That tool provides opportunities, still in a very fledgling state, to children and to all learners to develop their abilities, not least in language. If it is the success that we believe it can be, we shall be able to offer language teaching to a variety of learners, in a wide variety of languages. I also want us to consider the use of new technology, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, and its potential for epals, the twinning of schools on the Internet, and so on.

In the short time available, I also want to consider briefly our secondary schools. I trust that I have already indicated our belief that the earlier children start to learn languages, the better, and our belief in the need to think extremely creatively about how to ensure that opportunities exist in the wider community. But the reality is that at present most children come across the formal teaching of a foreign language for the first time at secondary school.

Motivation needs to continue to secondary school. That is why the new key stage 3 strategy is important. It is designed to improve classroom teaching and learning for 11 to 14 year-old pupils in all subjects, including languages. In essence, it is a major programme of professional development for teachers. We are supporting the strategy with an investment of £489 million over the three years to 2003–04. We shall run a pilot specifically for languages as part of the "teaching and learning in the foundation subjects" strand of the key stage 3 strategy. The pilot will run from summer 2002 until spring 2003, and we are investing £1.2 million in it.

A number of noble Lords referred to the specialist school model. We believe that that is important. My noble friend Lord Radice said that we have approximately 100 but, in fact, we have 126 language colleges—a number that we expect to see grow. Part of the purpose of that model is to allow other schools to access the knowledge and support of specialist schools, including links through ICT. That is one answer to the questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, in her example of Guildford.

We want to see the links between language colleges and primary schools strengthened, as part of the community links that specialist schools are already required to make. I am also interested in looking at the role of specialist schools as the professional home for language assistants who come to this country and who can provide great support in teaching and learning for our children.

Noble Lords know that we are looking carefully at the curriculum for 14 to 19 year-olds. There will be many opportunities to debate the consultation document on that matter when it is ready. However, I believe that the agenda of motivation and opportunity is the important course to follow in this issue. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said, many young people do not study languages beyond the age of 14. I believe that that returns us to the question: what will make young people recognise the twin motivation of having languages experience as a young person and knowing that it will be of benefit to their futures?

A few moments ago I raised the issue of language assistants. That gives me the opportunity to focus on the question of my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel about our links with the embassies of our European partners. We have received a number of proposals from our European partners and from the ambassadors of those partners. There is a regular dialogue between us and we are very keen to discuss issues with them.

The possibility of the Education Bill reaching your Lordships' House in good time has prevented my planned visit to Madrid—I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that it would have been a one-day visit—to discuss these issues. However, his Excellency the German Ambassador has been in discussion with officials and Ministers at the DfES. We are grateful to him for his ideas. Our task is to weave those ideas into realisable plans that fit together.

We are interested in looking at the opportunities provided by teachers coming from our European partners and other countries who can offer languages. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that we have not only 61 but 100 places available for primary languages. I agree with the noble Baroness that this is an important initiative and one that we wish to promote.

I want to end by talking about the languages steering group and future work. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Watson, that not only do I have a steering group but I also have a focus group looking specifically at primary languages. However, more realistically, within the languages steering group we are talking to and working with partners not only from organisations which are deeply involved in languages, such as Nuffield, but also with our colleagues across government: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of Trade and Industry. Of course, we are very mindful of the issues—

Lord Watson of Richmond

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. She explained to the House that she was sharing with us this evening some of her background thinking and some of the crossings-out as well as the ticks. However, can she also share with us when she hopes to arrive at a strategy?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, indeed. I shall. This is a slightly long-winded answer and I apologise to the noble Lord, but in replying I want to make two points. The first is that it is very important to the work that we are doing that we have a strategy that is well resourced and that meets with approval from those who will have to implement it. Much criticism is heaped on all governments in all societies for coming up with ideas that have not been tried and tested. It is not our intention to do that.

Secondly, for the next few months the languages steering group will continue to deliberate on the different parts of education. I hope to be able to come to your Lordships' House with a thought-through strategy by the autumn. I say that on the basis that we have already begun to think about that languages strategy. Noble Lords will be aware of that because I know that such documents are in existence. But we need to talk to many colleagues to discuss and debate what the issues might be. I know that the noble Lord will hold me to that, and I look forward to discussing the matter in the autumn.

I shall be brief in finishing. As the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, said, it is important that this is joined-up government. However, it is also important that we recognise that a political will exists to take action on this matter. I say to my noble friend Lord Radice that we need to be careful about mixing need with political will. We should approach this because it is of value and important to our society, not just simply on the basis of need.

We wish to move to a strategy based on practical action that we can undertake. We shall be exploring all the proposals I have indicated. We are mindful that noble Lords will have other ideas. I look forward to speaking with noble Lords, both in your Lordships' House and outside.

In conclusion I do not pretend that there is anything other than a lot to do. We are fortunate in the partners with whom we are working, including the Nuffield Foundation, CILT, subject associations, business, teachers, students and others. We are determined that our solutions will stand the test of time, can be resourced properly, are not rushed and are well thought through. I hope that I have given your Lordships some indication of our commitment. Once again, I thank my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel for initiating the debate.

8.1 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for replying in extenso. I note that we have a date in the autumn. Perhaps I may advise her that that date will be met.

My noble friend has given us many ideas. There are many things which both she and the department are studying. As yet we have not had any action on, or a strategy for, the Nuffield report. It is a question of waiting until the autumn. I am sure that noble Lords who have taken part in the debate will hold my noble friend to that. I hope, too, that the Government 'will provide time for a debate on the matter in the autumn.

Meanwhile, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. It has been a useful exercise. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Michie, for her speech, which was not in Gaelic. Perhaps I should have replied in Welsh. It was a most distinguished maiden speech and we look forward to hearing from her on many occasions on all sorts of subjects at which she is expert.

On a personal note, I echo the comments of my noble friend the Minister. I am glad to see the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in her place. She was much missed and I am glad that she has returned. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.