HL Deb 27 March 2002 vol 633 cc228-30

2.53 p.m.

Lord Watson of Richmond

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will drop their proposal to end compulsory foreign language learning after age 14 given the decline in foreign language learning in schools and universities which such a step would accelerate.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, this is a proposal in the Green Paper, 14–19: extending opportunities, raising standards, which is open to consultation until 31st May. Views expressed during consultation wit I help to inform our decision.

Our proposals balance the need for greater choice for pupils and the importance of foreign languages by proposing a statutory entitlement to them at key stage 4. Our document, Language Learning, includes our ambition that primary school children be entitled to study languages by 2012.

Lord Watson of Richmond

My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer but I remain perplexed, particularly on the issue of consultation. I should like the noble Lord to answer the following question. A year ago the Government set up the National Steering Group for Languages, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton. It has consistently warned of a crisis in foreign language learning in this country with a 30 per cent drop in students studying French at A-level and a drop of over 15 per cent in students studying German at A-level. Why, having set up the steering group under their own chairmanship, did the Government give it only 12 hours' notice of the proposal to curtail compulsory language learning? Was it because they knew only too well what the view of the steering group would be?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Lord will recognise that we take seriously the representations of the steering group and are, indeed, concerned about the provision of modern languages teaching in our schools today. The noble Lord will also recognise that the proposals that we are putting forward enhance foreign languages provision for the future. However, this issue cannot be switched on and off easily if we are to provide opportunities for children to start foreign language study at the earliest possible age which must be the base. It takes time for us to provide the teachers who are required in primary schools. The noble Lord will recognise that the Government have put forward a whole series of proposals to encourage people to take up foreign languages teaching following their university careers.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, does the Minister accept that very many children get excited about learning a foreign language when they go abroad not with their families but on a school trip or one sponsored by a voluntary organisation when they go into shops and have to speak the language of the country they are visiting? That is when they get interested. If this proposal is implemented, they may have learnt the relevant language from an early age but they will switch off at 14 and never have that experience because they will not go on those trips. It seems utterly ridiculous.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Baroness will recognise that the opportunities for young people to go abroad are much more extensive now than at any time in the past. Therefore, the opportunity to stimulate an interest in learning foreign languages can arise from a very early age. That is why we are concentrating one of our strategies upon primary school education. We want to respond to the stimulus that can arise at any age. Our lifelong learning proposals ensure that people have the opportunity to take up foreign language learning in adult life in relation to their work. We accept the point the noble Baroness makes that the stimulus may arise at different stages in students' careers. Our proposals encourage the development of any such stimulus at any appropriate point.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, first, does my noble friend recognise that there is a fear that these proposals might undermine the viability of some university foreign language courses in our country? Secondly, does he recognise that these proposals might also have a deleterious effect on viability and student mobility within the European Union for British students, especially those on EU-funded courses?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. I reassure him that the Higher Education Funding Council is well aware of potential adjustments in provision in higher education and is taking due account of that and providing the resources necessary to ensure that that takes place smoothly. What we seek to achieve is an increase in participation in foreign languages post-16 because it is in the approach to A-level that students prepare themselves for their higher education courses. There is nothing in these proposals which will do anything other than enhance opportunities post-16.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, how is it that schools everywhere in Europe manage to teach children a foreign language from the age of eight or nine? Why is it that Her Majesty's Government are not able to provide that service?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Lord will recognise one obvious fact; namely, that the one foreign language which is universally taught in European schools is English. The status of English on the world stage is such that schools in European countries concentrate on teaching it to pupils at an early age. However, we are learning that lesson. We recognise that if our students are ill prepared in terms of competence in a second language, they cannot play their role within the European Community and grasp opportunities within Europe as well as they might. That is why the noble Lord will recognise the value of our following the example he just indicated of concentrating resources to ensure that our students enjoy the opportunity of foreign language study at an early age in junior schools.

Lord Dearing

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if the proposals in the Green Paper go forward, although the learning of a foreign language will not be compulsory in key stage 4, every 14 year-old who wants to continue learning a foreign language will nevertheless have the opportunity to do so?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am happy to confirm that very important point. I emphasise the obvious fact that we intend to ensure that all students who show an aptitude for foreign languages and who wish to pursue such studies in school should enjoy those opportunities. We are merely recognising that for some students foreign languages are not their tier. They currently vote with their feet by withdrawing from foreign language classes. We seek to concentrate the curriculum for those aged 14 to 16 on key skills, allied to choice for students. Those who choose foreign languages will of course enjoy full opportunities.