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Schools: Modern Languages

Volume 696: debated on Monday 19 November 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their reaction to the fall in the number of secondary school pupils achieving GCSE success in modern languages.

My Lords, the Government are pursuing the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, to improve the take-up of languages. We are introducing an entitlement to learn a modern language in primary school. We have trained more than 2,000 primary school language teachers. The new languages ladder attracted 160,000 entries in 2006-07 in 21 languages with further languages to be added. Next year we are publishing GCSE success rates school by school to encourage schools to promote take-up rates.

My Lords, I am sure that many of your Lordships acknowledge the real benefit of improved access to foreign language learning at primary level and moving across into secondary level. Does the Minister agree that that benefit at primary level sadly remains more than offset by the Government's mistaken decision to end obligatory language learning at secondary school and by the resultant sharp—and apparently continuing—decline in pupils taking a language at GCSE from 80 per cent seven years ago to a mere 50 per cent today? What further do the Government plan to do to reverse the serious decline with all its implications for British global business competitiveness?

My Lords, it is not the case that obligatory language learning does not apply in secondary school. It is very important that I correct that point of the noble Baroness’s.

The learning of languages remains compulsory in key stage 3; that is, ages 11 to 14. It is is optional at key stage 4—ages 14 to 16—where students may opt not to study a modern language. As the noble Baroness will know, we have given guidance to schools that we expect them to set targets of between 90 per cent and 50 per cent for children taking a language. Why did we make this an option? We did so for all the reasons set out in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, on this issue to ensure that there is a full range of choice for young people as they approach GCSE to take courses which best suit their aptitudes in terms of where they intend to go in employment and higher education routes beyond. I would like to see most students taking a language, but we recognise that it is right for this choice to be there. The noble Lord, Lord Dearing, concluded in his report that the course we have taken, which is inviting schools to set these targets, was our preferred course because it,

“gives schools scope to develop learning programmes for each child that best fit him/her for life, and best motivates many more of our young people to stay in learning after the age of sixteen. This must be a major objective of education policy”.

Accepting that there are conflicting pressures here, we endorse the views of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be a very good idea for schools to make sure that pupils learn their own language? There is widespread evidence that very few children are emerging through school with the use of English.

My Lords, that is almost a worthless question, if I may say so. The idea that very few children emerge from our schools with a good command of English is simply so far removed from the reality that it is very difficult for me to respond to that question.

My Lords, 223 schools are given special funding in order to enhance and, indeed, specialise in modern languages. What measures are in place to assure us that the secondary schools concerned are fulfilling their mission by, first, increasing the take-up of modern languages; secondly, diversifying that take up; and, thirdly, encouraging their neighbouring schools to do likewise?

My Lords, every four years, specialist language schools come up for redesignation and their success in meeting the objectives set out by the noble Lord is a key criterion for their redesignation.

My Lords, the Minister tells us of the success that the Government are having in recruiting foreign language teachers for primary schools but, as we understand it, the problem is really that there is a dearth of foreign language teachers for secondary schools. What progress are the Government making in recruiting greater numbers of teachers?

My Lords, we are meeting the targets for recruitment of language teachers for secondary schools, so I do not believe that there is the dearth that the noble Baroness mentioned.

My Lords, will my noble friend speculate on whether the potential is there, when we extend the school leaving age to 18, for students to come back to learning languages, and to learn a second language when they have the opportunity to do so?

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend; that opportunity is there. That is part of the reason why we have developed the languages ladder, which allows achievement in languages to be recognised in forms other than the conventional GCSE and A-level.

My Lords, the decline in languages at A-level seems to have stabilised for the time being, but more teachers of languages will not be produced unless we can also reverse the decline in applications to university to read modern languages. What specific measures do the Government intend to take to help with that? Will they increase the golden hello payments to newly qualified modern language teachers from £2,500 to £5,000, in line with the payments for new maths and science teachers?

My Lords, the golden hello payments to which the noble Baroness referred put modern languages at an advantage compared with most subjects in the secondary curriculum. We do not intend to increase that payment at the moment. On students proceeding to university, as she said, take-up rates at A-level are the key determinant there and we are glad to see that the take-up rate of all languages at A-level increased this year.

My Lords, the Minister has rightly spoken of the Government's enthusiasm for teaching languages in primary school. There is of course no point in teaching languages in primary school unless the curriculum that the children have followed in primary school is very accurately dovetailed with what they will then learn in secondary school. Will the Minister explain to the House what arrangements are made for that dovetailing?

My Lords, part of the function of the languages colleges, which we heard about earlier, is to ensure that there is significant joint curriculum development between primary schools and secondary schools. As the noble Baroness rightly says, that joint curriculum development will ensure that the languages introduced into primary school provide a solid grounding for the courses being followed beyond the age of 11.