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Leaving the EU: Student Exchanges

Volume 632: debated on Thursday 30 November 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Freer.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of foreign exchanges in the Chamber this evening. In my own family, exchanges are an integral part of growing up. I was packed off to Holland at 10 years old, and to a family in France at 11. As my linguistic skills improved, Germany and Hong Kong followed. During my undergraduate studies, I was lucky enough to go on an Erasmus programme at Caen University.

The pattern repeats itself, as in so much of what we do as parents: at home we rarely have a holiday without a foreign exchange student. In the past few years we have welcomed Anne-France and Philippine from Paris; Anya from Moscow; Yining Le from Beijing; Julius and Johanna from Dusseldorf, whose mother was an old friend of mine from university; Eleanor from Loches; and we are just starting to get to know a girl from southern Italy. With two linguist daughters, a great deal of our family time is spent applying for visas for my girls, and entertaining and providing regular meals for visiting teenagers. The experience is not simply about improving the ability to communicate in a different language; the children come back confident and buzzing with new experiences, as well as with a desire to learn better language skills. We have all learnt from Anya and Yining Le, who taught us so much about their different cultures and traditions. We really value the wider network of family and friends we have made as a result of getting to know them.

The same was true for year 6 pupils at Hook Norton Primary School, whom I was proud to see win a British Council international school award earlier this week. Their teacher told me about 18 years of exchanges with Sweden and how much the children gain from it. Bure Park Primary School, which I also visited this week, exchanges annually with Italian and German children. I want such opportunities to be available to all our young people.

We must give greater consideration to language learning. The Government have been laudably keen to promote STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—and are making efforts to ensure that modern foreign languages are part of the EBacc. Nevertheless, language learning is on a downward spiral. The number of GCSEs taken in modern languages fell by more than 7% this year, and this summer’s A-level results show that the number of British students taking languages has almost halved over the past two decades. Applications to study a European language at university have fallen by 20% over the past four years. Those figures show why we do not have enough new teachers leaving our universities to encourage language learning in children at school today and tomorrow.

Earlier this week the Foreign Secretary spoke of his vision for a global Britain:

“The driving purpose of this Government is to strengthen Britain’s global role, to raise our level of national ambition and to prepare for the opportunities before us”.—[Official Report, 27 November 2017; Vol. 632, c. 54.]

How can foreign exchanges help? The international language of business might be English, but the language of selling goes so much deeper. Soft diplomacy involves much more than just talking. We are fortunate that English is widely spoken, but our success in achieving a truly global Britain depends on our ability not only to speak to people abroad but to understand their culture—shouting loudly will not sell our products worldwide.

The recent “Languages for the Future” report by the brilliant British Council makes it clear:

“Without language skills we lose out not only through the restricted ability to communicate internationally, but even more importantly through the closing down of opportunities for overseas work experience, a lack of international business sense, a failure to appreciate that other cultures have different ways of doing things and a potential tendency to overestimate the global importance of British culture.”

Young people who have spent time immersed in the domestic life of another country are so much better equipped for selling global Britain, global justice and our values and opportunities.

Another great advantage of student exchanges is that they are a comparatively cheap way to travel. The cost is that of the fare and, where appropriate, the visa. It is important that the Government think seriously about how they deal with young people on exchanges, because when my daughter visits her Russian exchange, she has to fill out a new visa application each time and come up to London to have her biometrics taken. We put up barriers on both sides, because her 17-year-old Russian exchange was charged almost £500 for her UK visa application, which had to be expedited as her initial application was refused—all this to allow her to come on our family holiday to Wales. Although I realise this goes beyond the Minister’s remit, I hope he will work with his colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that teenagers such as those two, as well as the young people who take part in programmes such as Erasmus, are encouraged in their exchanging, particularly after we leave the EU.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Another dimension, as I am sure she knows, is that schools often go on visits abroad—not necessarily exchanges—and again there can be obstacles. Does she agree that schools sometimes find it difficult to recruit language teachers?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The type of foreign language exchanges I am talking about involve living with a family abroad and the depth of understanding that can be gained only in a domestic setting. That is what I am so keen to promote. Of course it is difficult for schools to arrange such exchanges, but it is worth it.

I thank all teachers who put themselves out and often spend their own holidays travelling with groups of teenagers—not everybody’s cup of tea—to far-flung places to enable deep, worthwhile experiences for our children. I hope the Minister will join me in encouraging that.

This is a classic example of a debate in which I made to leave Chamber, realised what the debate was about and came back with alacrity. I am hugely enjoying the hon. Lady’s contribution, and I am in total agreement with her. Friendships formed between foreign students can be crucial. President Clinton was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, which helped his understanding and attitude towards this country.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is about a depth of friendship that encourages not only language skills but the ability to have a network of friends and contacts. My early experiences of foreign exchanges gave me the confidence to travel abroad in the political sphere. I was able to spend some time working for the Christian Democratic Union of Germany and at the White House in the States, but I doubt that I would ever have thought of such opportunities had I not had my early experiences of travel and of the value of building networks across continents, which early foreign exchange travel offers to students. I cannot tell him how valuable I think such experiences are.

Exchanges can give our young people the internationalist outlook that we need. We should capitalise on the teenage ability to make friends easily and encourage teenagers to open their eyes to new and different opportunities. Even though learning a language inevitably involves hard work on grammar and vocab tests, the speed with which one picks up a language when immersed in family life is second to none. Learning with a friend is so much better, and the technology available to students makes learning easily accessible. My children have Mandarin and Russian keyboards on their phones to enable them to text their exchanges—that does make policing their phones rather difficult when their mother does not speak either language. Nevertheless, I commend their enthusiasm, and it seems to be the way that the children of today find easiest to communicate. I am impressed that one of my daughters does her texting in Russian and the Russian exchange does hers in English, which is really commendable—and not just done to frustrate mothers.

Finally, language learning has lifelong health benefits. Studies of people with Alzheimer’s disease have shown that, on average, symptoms started four and half years later for people who could speak at least two languages. It is perhaps appropriate to mention my grandmother here. She is well into her 90s, but continues to work on her languages through audiobooks now that her eyesight is not as good as it once was. She successfully taught generations of children of all abilities to communicate in a selection of languages—albeit all with a strong Welsh accent. I ask the Minister to join me in thanking her and today’s generation of language teachers, including the inspirational women who teach my daughters. I ask him to encourage them to promote the student exchanges that we need to take global Britain forward.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) on securing this debate. I join her in thanking the language teachers up and down the country who teach our young people to speak, write and read in a foreign language. As I will mention later, I was at school this morning with a commendable group of language teachers, who do wonderful work in that school.

This debate gives me the opportunity to emphasise again the Government’s commitment to remaining open to the world after we leave the EU and to becoming even more global and internationalist in our outlook. Improving the take-up and teaching of modern foreign languages in our schools and ensuring that there continues to be international opportunities for students, young people and teachers to participate in exchanges is an important part of achieving that goal. I also agree with my hon. Friend that there are business, cultural and educational benefits to learning a language

The level of take-up and proficiency in foreign languages in England is not yet what it should be—my hon. Friend was right to point that out—and we have taken steps to address that. In 2010, we introduced the English baccalaureate. To meet this measure of performance for state-funded secondary schools, pupils have to be entered for GCSEs in English, maths, science, history or geography and an ancient or modern foreign language. In July, we announced our ambition for 75% of year 10 pupils to be taking the EBacc by 2022 and for that to reach 90% by 2025. It was 37% this year. That represents a significant step-change for schools, particularly in relation to the uptake of languages GCSEs, which is often the area that has prevented schools from achieving higher EBacc entry rates. Our expectation is that the uptake of these GCSEs will increase over the coming years, widening the potential pool of students with the ability to continue studying languages to a higher level.

In September 2014, schools began to teach the new national curriculum that we introduced. It requires local authority-maintained primary schools to teach a modern or ancient foreign language to pupils at key stage 2. Schools can choose which language to teach, and must ensure that pupils make substantial progress in one language by the end of primary school. It is also mandatory for maintained secondary schools to teach a foreign language to pupils at key stage 3. Although there is no requirement for every pupil in such schools to then take a language at GCSE, there is a statutory entitlement for every pupil to take a course leading to a recognised qualification, if they wish to do so.

The fact that pupils often have the choice of whether to continue to study a language to GCSE makes it especially important for their earlier experiences of being taught the subject to be positive.

The Minister may or may not be able to answer this question. How popular is Chinese—how interested are people in this country in taking up the language? The Chinese have lots of markets and we should not forget that we trade with China.

If the hon. Gentleman is patient, I shall come to that. One of the purposes of my visit this morning was to see the Mandarin excellence programme that is happening in a number of schools throughout the country.

In a 2015 report, “Key stage 3: the wasted years?”, Ofsted reported that many pupils chose to discontinue studying languages at the end of key stage 3 because of a lack of enjoyment in their lessons or a feeling of not making enough progress. That was despite many of the same pupils recognising the value of languages. Prompted by that, the Teaching Schools Council carried out a review of modern foreign languages pedagogy in key stages 3 and 4. The review was carried out by the experienced headteacher Ian Bauckham and reported in November last year. It set out key principles for delivering effective language teaching and produced a number of sensible recommendations for teachers and headteachers in schools.

We have improved the standard and quality of qualifications. We worked with Ofqual, subject experts, universities and teachers to design new GCSEs and A-levels, which were introduced for French, German and Spanish in 2016. The level of demand of these qualifications matches those of the highest-performing countries, and they will better prepare pupils for the demands of further education and employment. They are robust qualifications in which students, employers, colleges and universities can have confidence. French, German and Spanish remain the top three most popular foreign languages taught in our schools, although Mandarin is coming up fast. As the British Council “Languages for the Future” report highlights, Mandarin is one of the top five languages of crucial importance for the UK’s future prosperity, security and influence in the world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury and the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) might be interested to know that the Department has established and funded the Mandarin excellence programme since 2016. The programme offers intense study in the language, which is not only personally enriching for students but will give them a significant advantage when they enter the world of work. We want 5,000 young people, ab initio, to study the language and become fluent by 2020.

Pupils on the programme study Mandarin—listen to this—for eight hours a week, at least four hours of which are teacher-led in classrooms, with the remaining four hours in their own time. Over the next four years, I hope that we will see a significant increase in the numbers of pupils on the programme. The programme started with 14 secondary schools in September 2016, and 23 additional secondary schools joined in September this year.

I was delighted earlier today to see the programme in action and meet some of the pupils during my visit to Alexandra Park School in Haringey. At Alexandra Park, 27 pupils started in the year 7 cohort in September last year. They scored a very impressive 95% average mark in progress tests across reading, writing, listening and speaking last summer, and they have all progressed to the second year of the programme. A new year 7 cohort of 30 pupils started Mandarin lessons at Alexandra Park in September 2017, and I am sure they will do equally well. Incidentally, all year 7 pupils at that school study Mandarin and a European language.

Once again, I am not sure whether the Minister can answer this question now. Perhaps he can write to me on it. Are any schools in Coventry teaching Mandarin?

I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman about that. We want to have a spread of Mandarin excellence programmes across the country, but the initial schools were chosen because they already had a track record of teaching Mandarin very well. The project is led and driven by the excellent Katharine Carruthers of the UCL Institute of Education. The pupils I met this morning were hugely impressive, very ambitious and had high expectations. They want not only to take a GCSE and an A-level in Mandarin, but to go on to HSK 4 and HSK 5, which is essentially fluency in the language. Interestingly, I asked them all what they wanted to do when they left school and none of them wanted to go on to study Mandarin at university. They wanted to be lawyers, doctors and business people, but they also wanted to be fluent in Mandarin.

The answer to my question may be, “Write a letter to John Swinney in the Scottish Government” but does the Minister have any idea what the situation is with regard to the teaching of Mandarin across the border in Scotland?

No, I am afraid that I do not. This is a devolved matter. I have spoken to John Swinney a number of times about education matters, and the Scottish Government are implementing a new curriculum for excellence.

The programme also supports the training of new Mandarin teachers to ensure that there is capacity within the system to teach Mandarin. The quality and supply of teachers of modern foreign languages are essential to pupil proficiency and progression. It is very important that pupils are taught by high-quality and inspiring teachers—like the ones I met this morning—in all the subjects, including languages. We remain committed to attracting the brightest and best graduates into the teaching profession. To support that commitment, we continue to offer generous tax-free bursaries, worth up to £26,000, and tax-free scholarships of up to £28,000 for trainees in modern foreign languages.

Figures released today show that we recruited 1,405 modern foreign language trainees to start initial teacher training courses this year, achieving 93% of our target, which was similar to our performance last year, where we achieved 94% of our target.

I appreciate the Minister giving way on this important subject. Is he aware of the ScotGrad programme in Scotland, which is run by Scottish Enterprise? It sponsors up to 40% of the gross salary of an undergraduate for a year so they may undertake a placement in industry on the subject of business development. Let me cite a good example. When I worked with Scottish Enterprise, I sponsored a foreign language student, a Mandarin student, who worked with a heavy engineering company in Scotland. As a result of that one-year placement, the company increased its turnover in the Chinese market by up to 60% in the given year. That was a huge commercial opportunity, and just shows the untapped potential of integrating foreign language skills into our industries. There could be a good opportunity to roll that out across the United Kingdom.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. We are a global trading nation and it is essential that we are able to speak to our customers in their own language, which is why I feel as passionately as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury and the hon. Gentleman about the importance of young people learning languages.

We recognise, however, that recruitment in modern foreign language subjects continues to be challenging, which is why we are supporting schools with targeted initiatives that go beyond our standard recruitment channels. For example, we recently announced a new student loan reimbursement programme for MFL teachers in the early years of their career. This pilot incentivises new teachers to stay in the profession and to teach in the areas where they are needed most. We also acknowledge the valuable contribution that internationally trained teachers make to education in this country, which is why we want to ensure that schools have the opportunity to recruit from overseas to fill posts that cannot be filled from the resident workforce.

We are working with the Spanish Ministry of Education and have joined its visiting teachers programme, which provides opportunities for schools in England to recruit high-quality modern foreign language teachers from Spain. An acclimatisation package is provided to help to support the new teachers to work and live in England. Sixteen teachers took up post in September 2017, and we have built a recruitment pool of over 60 teachers available for recruitment this academic year. We also recognise the benefits that cultural exchange can bring. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. They build important political, diplomatic and knowledge-sharing networks around the world, not to mention the lifelong friendships that come from those exchanges.

Since 2007, the UK Government have co-funded an annual headteachers’ exchange programme with the Ministry of Education in Singapore and the British Council, and I was delighted to attend the 10th anniversary of the programme at the Singapore high commission last week. This scheme provides an excellent opportunity for headteachers in England to share ideas and best practice with their counterparts in Singapore, which is the best-performing country in PISA on important areas such as improving maths teaching and the use of textbooks to support a knowledge-rich curriculum. Headteachers who have taken part in previous exchanges have reported a lasting positive impact. For example, Executive Head Marie-Claire Bretherton of Mount Street Academy, Lincoln, has now trained 60 teachers across the Kyra Teaching Schools Alliance in maths mastery following her visit to Singapore in 2016.

School links and exchanges between schools have long provided valuable cultural and language experiences for our pupils. Many of our schools have long-standing partnerships with schools overseas, and the British Council manages a number of school-linking programmes in over 40 countries and a supportive framework for international activities in schools through its international school award. Supporting student exchanges helps us to create a new generation that is globally mobile, culturally agile and thrives in an increasingly global economy.

In higher education, we are keen to work with the sector to further explore how we can best promote outward mobility and the benefits our UK students will gain from studying abroad. Earlier this month, my hon. Friend the Universities Minister welcomed the Go International: Stand Out campaign launched by Universities UK International to encourage young people to experience studying, working and volunteering abroad. This campaign aims to double the percentage of UK students having some form of outward mobility experience as part of their degree by 2020.

I cannot talk about student exchange without mentioning the long-established Erasmus+ programme. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear in her Florence speech that education was one area where she hoped the UK would continue to participate on the basis of a fair and ongoing contribution, among many other areas of business, commerce and culture.

We are not just committed to providing our young people with outward mobility opportunities. We also recognise the importance of welcoming talent from around the world into our institutions. As the Government have said before, EU and international students enrich the UK, both financially and culturally, bring greater diversity to our schools, universities and colleges, add an international dimension to the experience of our students and go on to become important ambassadors for the UK in later life.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising these important issues and for allowing me to point out how much the Government value modern foreign languages, inspirational teachers and student exchanges. I hope that she is reassured that we recognise the importance of this issue and that we are working to get the right result for the education sector in the UK.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.