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Foreign Languages

Volume 450: debated on Thursday 12 October 2006

11. What measures the Department is taking to increase the number of pupils studying foreign languages at GCSE and A-level. (92869)

With the introduction of languages in primary schools, and the improvement of the quality of teaching and learning at key stage 3, we expect more pupils to want to continue to learn languages at GCSE and A-level. However, it will take time for the effects of our strategy to be realised. I can announce to the House that I have asked Lord Dearing to review our languages policy at key stage 4 and to consider what more can be done to increase take-up.

The Secretary of State may know that, in the past year, only 2,854 pupils in the East Riding of Yorkshire took languages at GCSE—down from 3,471 in 1997. Only 98 students took an A-level in languages in the East Riding of Yorkshire—down from 181 in 1997. I sincerely hope that he will consider reviewing the policy. Does he now regret the decision to remove languages as a compulsory subject at GCSE three years ago? Will he do a proper U-turn?

No. The fundamental question is whether that strategy was right. The hon. Gentleman is right that there has been a drop, but there has also been an improvement in attainment by those students who have continued to study languages. [Interruption.] No, it is not marginal. In two years, pass rates are up 11 per cent. in French and 9.7 per cent. in German.

There is a problem in this country: people who speak three languages are called trilingual, people who speak two languages are called bilingual, and those who speak one language are called English. We need to address that problem. Our strategy to do so is for children to start learning languages earlier—at age seven—and no longer to force kids who are starting their GCSEs to study a language if they do not wish to do so. We have no record of the Conservatives opposing that strategy, and it could be key to solving the problem. We want languages to flourish. Forcing 14 to 16-year-olds to learn a language will not achieve that objective, but exciting children about languages at an early age, and finding new and more inspiring ways of teaching languages, will do so.

Lord Dearing has been asked to look into this issue. He has a tremendous track record and, if he says to us that this strategy is wrong and we should go into reverse, we will listen to that advice; we will do that. But Members in all parts of the House would have to be absolutely convinced that that is the right thing to do, and so would Lord Dearing, because the principles of those changes are right. I share the deep disappointment about the drop that there has been; there has been a decrease, not only in East Riding but across the country, of about 14.7 per cent. this year. That cannot be right, and we must do something about it.