HL Deb 02 July 2002 vol 637 cc117-9
Lord Quirk

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing I should declare a modest interest as past president of two of the "other bodies" alluded to; that is, the British Academy and the Institute of Linguists.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are reconsidering their language teaching proposals (Government consultation document 14–19: extending opportunities, raising standards) in the light of the representations made by the Nuffield Steering Group and other bodies.

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

My Lords, the consultation on the Green Paper, 14–19: extending opportunities, raising standards, only closed on 31st May 2002. We are reflecting carefully on all the views expressed during the consultation before reaching any decisions. We have indicated in the Green Paper that curriculum changes would be subject to further consultation before their introduction.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. I wonder if it is not time for us to reconsider our position with respect to foreign languages and to think of them less as academic subjects than as practical skills. Is there not an attractive analogy in learning a musical instrument? The Associated Board tests performance at various grades, each of which is admirable in its own right; the pupil may at his own pace take up more than one instrument; and the QCA provides guidelines whereby the music grades are related to GCSE and A-level scores.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I could not agree more with the noble Lord, Lord Quirk. Indeed, noble Lords will have heard me discuss in debate the issues of the national languages strategy, which I was responsible ministerially for pulling together. We have been looking at the possibility of a system similar to a music grade, equating across, as the noble Lord says, but enabling people of all ages— including Members of your Lordships' House—to learn a foreign language and to have a similar accreditation system based on the practical application of language.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, has the noble Baroness discovered who was responsible for relaxing the national curriculum for teaching languages in secondary schools as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, at the last stage of our debate on the Education Bill?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, indeed, and I have written to the noble Baroness in that regard. I assume that the letter has not yet arrived. I hope it will arrive this afternoon. It explains that the references to disapplication were about ensuring that disapplication was simpler in the sense of the bureaucratic machine, but not about relaxing the ability of schools to teach languages before this consultation is finished and before we have made any decisions. So the disapplication procedure has always been under review. It is not the intention of this Government to allow any schools to change what they do until we have made any decisions.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Franco-British Society. Can my noble friend say whether, in view of the shortage of language teachers, the Government can persuade retired qualified teachers, some of whom may have retired early, to take up teaching again perhaps on a part-time basis?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, we are looking at all opportunities to encourage teachers back into the profession and, particularly in the case of language teachers we are discussing with our counterparts, the French and German ambassadors, ways in which we can work more closely. We want especially to revive the Assistant programme, which noble Lords may remember—I certainly do—as a way of enhancing our ability to teach languages in schools.

Lord Watson of Richmond

My Lords, I recognise that on this matter, as in many others, the Minister's heart is in the right place. Perhaps we can strengthen another part of her anatomy, namely, her elbow. Would it strengthen her elbow if Her Majesty's Government recognised that one of the results of removing modern languages from the core curriculum at 14 must be to widen inequality and privilege in the educational system? All the facts show clearly that while modern language learning has been falling in the state system, it has been rising in public schools and private education. Surely that cannot be the intention of the Government.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for his concerns about my anatomy. I hope that my elbows are fairly strong in this regard. The consultation has just finished and we are considering its content carefully. However, I have always worried about a system that relies heavily on the compulsion of a group of teenagers to learn a language as being the mechanism by which we provide languages to the population. So, while taking nothing away from what the noble Lord said, I am interested in ensuring that we have a national languages strategy which is as applicable to a five year-old as it is to a 55 year-old in terms of providing the opportunity to learn one of many languages that students might wish to learn.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, given that the Government's language learning strategy visualises that only by 2012—10 years from now—will every primary age school child have the opportunity of learning a foreign language, is it not essential, following upon the point already made, that, while developing their long-term strategy, the Government have an emergency plan to recruit and retain the necessary foreign language teachers? Can the Minister assure the House that the Government are taking action along those lines?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, in reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, first there is always a difficulty when putting an end date on a policy or strategy. Of course, it is the only date of reference and, therefore, it is endlessly referred to. But I would say that it is an end date and not a beginning date. That is important.

We have a language strategy group in which the Nuffield Foundation and others are deeply involved. I am extraordinarily grateful for its contribution. Our plan is to produce the strategy document by the late autumn—by the end of October or the beginning of November. It will lay out the details of how we wish to take forward languages in education right across from higher education down to primary schools. I hope that within that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, will see a strategy that looks at recruiting, retaining and developing the ability that we have to teach languages across a wide spectrum.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, I want to ask the Minister a very simple question after all the complications. Why is it that throughout the European Union they manage to teach languages from the age of eight or nine and in the United Kingdom we cannot? Can the Minister tell us why we cannot do it?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the reason that we cannot do it is because we have never had a national language strategy. That is why it is so important that we begin to develop one now. That fits very well with the work we are doing with our European Union partners in thinking about the issues which are also pertinent in other parts of the European Union, such as teacher retention.

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