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Schools: Language Teaching

Volume 691: debated on Monday 23 April 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What action they are taking or planning to take in response to the recent Languages Review by Lord Dearing and Dr Lid King.

My Lords, the Secretary of State has welcomed the Languages Review and announced that languages would become a statutory part of the primary school curriculum when it is next reviewed. He has also announced a budget of £50 million for languages in 2007-08. We are considering how to take forward each recommendation of the review, and are confident that the package as a whole will have a significant impact on language teaching and learning in both primary and secondary schools.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for the detail of that reply. He will doubtless agree that it is in secondary schools that the matter of reversing the downward trend will be most challenging. It may well be that instilling some strong motivation for language learning in respect of future careers may be a key factor. Will the Minister therefore be urging big employers, such as the Civil Service, to state in job ads that the knowledge of a second or third language would be an advantage? Does he agree with the British Academy that the universities have a role in that motivational aspect as well? I note that University College, London, has decided to start requiring an additional language, be it German, Urdu, French or Farsi, for entry to all faculties in future.

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord that both employers, including the Civil Service, and higher education have a role to play in ensuring that languages are taken seriously in secondary schools. However, as he will be aware, one of the major thrusts of the report by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, was the importance of systematically introducing languages into primary schools, where they simply have not been present in the past, so that pupils arrive at secondary school with the motivation to learn a language, which we believe will make a big difference to the likelihood of their continuing to learn it beyond the age of 14.

My Lords, how confident are the Government that they will have enough teachers capable of teaching at the primary school level? In particular, will some native speakers be used to act as assistants in primary schools, perhaps by doing short-course training? We send people overseas with just six weeks’ training from courses on Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

My Lords, yes, we are using an increasing number of assistants in primary schools. As the noble Baroness is aware, historically we did not train language teachers specifically for primary school; that happened only in the private sector. We have started doing so, and now have 2,000 specifically trained language teachers in the primary sector. We are training at the rate of 1,000 a year, and believe that that will help us to systematically introduce language learning into primary schools.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether the Government are planning to increase the number of specialist colleges from 300 to 400?

Yes, my Lords, we are. As the noble Baroness will be aware, that was also a recommendation of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing. So concerned are we to see that it is met that we have increased the incentive for secondary schools to apply to take on either a first specialism or second specialism in languages, so that we can work towards the figure of 400.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that English being the second language of, I believe, 27 per cent of youngsters who now attend school presents a considerable problem?

My Lords, it clearly does present a problem, particularly in the teaching of English in those schools. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, stressed in his report, it also presents an opportunity. By definition, these students become much more versatile in learning languages; they have two to start with—their native language and English. If properly used by schools, that could be an additional motivating factor in encouraging them to learn another language as well.

My Lords, the Government are fully behind the proposal to have a ladder up which people can ascend when they are ready at each stage of language learning. That will involve pupils of different ages taking the same examinations at the same time. Is that part of the policy?

My Lords, that is an absolutely key part of the policy so that we start introducing inter-language learning, the concept that has been present in music education for decades, where pupils take music grades when they are ready rather than in a regimented way according to their age or, too often, not at all. The languages ladder was introduced last year, when we had 25,000 entries. The number of centres offering the ladder has increased from 131 to 1,500. We expect 160,000 entries this year and we are expanding the range of languages available. The noble Lord, Lord Dearing, had a great deal to say about how we should integrate the languages ladder into assessments in primary and secondary schools and we intend to take forward his recommendations in that regard.

My Lords, will the Minister accept that the news that the Government are to introduce language teaching as a statutory requirement in primary schools is extremely welcome? There are probably many people in this House and elsewhere who wish that they had had the benefit of that early in their careers. Has he considered the possibility that, as with music teaching, many people in the community who are not trained teachers and do not wish to be may have skills in languages that they could bring into the classroom, subject to quality standards being applied of course, on an outsourced basis and not as permanent members of staff? Does he agree that the voluntary and private sectors may have a part to play in providing those services?

My Lords, my noble friend makes an extremely valuable point. Many members of the community and those employed by voluntary and private organisations can make a big contribution here. Their contribution can be particularly great because most primary schools may need not a full-time languages teacher, but an assistant, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, or support staff to help existing primary school teachers. We need to explore all these avenues.

My Lords, will the Government respond positively to the four strong recommendations for improving the qualifications of teachers in secondary schools, which have been put forward on page 17 in the Languages Review? They include national teacher research scholarships and the more systematic provision of online distance training resources. There are a lot of proposals for improving language teaching in secondary schools.

My Lords, we will respond positively to those recommendations. I cannot give chapter and verse on each of them now, but I will write to the noble Baroness. Each of them involves resource. We have a budget of £50 million this year for language learning and we need to see how we can prioritise those recommendations among others, with the resources available.