HL Deb 08 November 2004 vol 666 cc605-8

Lord Roberts of Llandudno asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will encourage, and provide assistance to, schools and youth organisations within the United Kingdom to "twin" with similar institutions in other parts of the world.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Filkin)

My Lords, this Government strongly encourage such links. Assistance can come through the EU Socrates and youth programmes, and there are many other government and non-government linking programmes. Information on these can be accessed through the department's Global Gateway website.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno

My Lords, I appreciate the Minister's response and we are grateful for what is happening already. Many youth groups and others are involved in these partnerships. The Minister will be aware that in Wales we have a special link with Lesotho. Are the Government doing all they can at this time of great threat and when there is a mountain of hostility and prejudice? What is it like to be a child in Fallujah today? Will the Government encourage the provision of translation facilities, information packs and possibly even co-operation with the BBC World Service in fulfilling that object?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I refer to the broad object of strengthening international links to benefit our own children in terms of understanding the wider world, of supporting other countries in being able to harness and connect with parts of our experience in education and other facilities that would help their own development, and of supporting UK competitiveness. For all those three reasons we are strongly committed to using these instruments to support our contribution to the wider world. As testament of that I would expect us in the very near future to publish an international strategy setting out how we want to take this journey further and faster in the future.

Lord Dearing

My Lords, the Government will be aware of the anxieties of teachers in today's litigious society about suits should anything go wrong when they lead an overseas visit of schoolchildren. Have the Government given thought to how teachers can be reassured on that concern?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the essential approach of the Government on this matter has been to give clear guidance to schools and to teachers about carrying out proper risk assessment to try to identify foreseeable risks that could occur as a product of going abroad. That process, if done well, should reduce, if not eliminate, risks. I can see the thrust behind the question of an indemnity of some sort. I undertake that we shall give that further reflection. However, one does not want to do anything that reduces the risk assessment process and incentivises people simply to indemnify risks. Having said that, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, that we shall reflect on whether this is a fruitful avenue for further work.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that his Answer will be greeted with a great deal of pleasure by many of those working in this sphere? Does he agree that in the context of not only the reality of the age in which we are living and the prejudice to which the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, referred but also the growing reality of total global interdependence, we will fail our young if we do not ensure that all their education is undertaken in the context of a sense of global reality and global understanding? Therefore, the Government need all possible support in the road that they are taking. Will my noble friend assure the House that he will consult closely with those leading NGOs which have become convinced that this kind of activity is crucially important?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I am slightly shocked to find that my answers give a great deal of pleasure; that has not been my custom. However, I indeed assure my noble friend, and agree with him, that we would fail our young in a global world if they did not understand their position in it, the richness and diversity of the world and the importance of fruitful educational, cultural and economic links in society. I assure him that when we publish our strategy, led with considerable zeal by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education, we shall be pleased to have dialogue with a range of NGOs and others.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords—

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, may I join others in thanking the Minister for his Answer—

Noble Lords


The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, there is enough time for both but I believe that it is the turn of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, how many children coming from abroad will have the language skills necessary to take advantage of going to schools in Wales where the, instruction is in the Welsh language?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I do not have exactly at my fingertips the numbers in Lithuania who want to learn Welsh, but I am sure that it is more than minimal. I expect that people will make their judgment on which part of this great United Kingdom of ours they target their twinned experience when they make such a decision. The UK is an enormously attractive destination for higher education both for European Union students and others for a variety of reasons, one of which is our language, or perhaps I should say our languages, given the question of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, will the Minister join me in congratulating the British Council on the efforts that it has made over many years in encouraging schools, particularly primary schools, to twin with schools in other countries?

Lord Filkin

Yes, my Lords. That is clearly part of what the Global Gateway website seeks to do. It provides—would you believe it?—a website that tells one how to twin and how to get support for twinning. The British Council has done great work. As a rough guess we estimate that about a quarter of all primary schools have partnerships of that sort. If it is part of a serious curriculum development and is not just an add-on, that undoubtedly is of great benefit to pupils, schools and international understanding.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that the extra help on languages might do something to redress the disastrous effects of the decision to drop them as a compulsory subject from GCSEs? In one year, in three-quarters of all comprehensive schools, apparently the numbers taking French have already fallen by about 70 per cent.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, from personal experience, I know full well that foreign travel and relationships encourage one to treat language learning seriously. I do not agree with the noble Baroness on the decision to move from a position in which the national curriculum said that every child had to learn a language, even if they showed no interest or aptitude whatever at 14, to one in which every child had the opportunity to learn a language if they wanted to do so. We were wise to make that change and put further effort into giving an opportunity for language training to younger children, so that, we hope, we do not have classes of 13 year-olds who have not engaged strongly and no longer wish to learn. That is a sensible thrust of policy.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are very good examples of links between schools via e-mail and the Internet? Is he also aware that that then requires the teachers to have the opportunity to meet, which costs money?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, most things cost money apart from, to some extent, e-mail exchanges. That is one great benefit that the web has given to international relationships. I do not take away the thrust of the noble Baroness's question—face-to-face contact is sometimes required as well. It is, but we have been able to do much more because schools in different parts of the world can have rich dialogue at virtually no cost using web and e-based technology. That has been marvellous in terms of the shift that it has brought about.

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