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Universities: Modern Languages

Volume 713: debated on Tuesday 27 October 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the review by Professor Michael Worton on the future of modern language provision in English universities, published on 20 October by the Higher Education Funding Council.

Mes Seigneurs, le rapport est une contribution valable au débat sur les langues modernes. Or, in plain English—I thought that that would be a different way of introducing this—the report is a valuable contribution to the debate on modern languages and we look forward to considering the detail with colleagues responsible for schools. However, I reaffirm the importance that the Government attach to language learning at all levels. The Routes into Languages programme, which incentivises universities to work with colleges and schools, is already making a significant impact in turning around the decline of languages among young people.

I thank the Minister for that positive reply. Will he also acknowledge that improvements at university are linked to improvements at school? Will he assure the House that the Government will implement Professor Worton’s recommendation that a mandatory target be set by all schools that between 50 and 90 per cent of pupils should study a language until they are 16 and that the setting and meeting of these targets should be closely monitored by Ofsted?

My Lords, we are considering a range of options for boosting take-up at key stage 4, including making this benchmark mandatory. We are already taking action to incentivise language learning at key stage 4, such as the revised key stage 3 curriculum, the online Open School for Languages and our communications campaign aimed at young people and their parents. We have also commissioned research into the effectiveness of Lord Dearing’s recommendations. However, it is not the role of Ofsted to police the setting of targets and their compliance by schools, although I certainly endorse the view of the importance of universities in encouraging schools and colleges to participate in foreign languages.

Has my noble friend read that part of Professor Worton’s report that says that the CBI is very concerned at the lack of linguists to help boost British business abroad?

Yes, my Lords, we have read that part. Certainly, the Worton report cites the CBI’s report Emerging Stronger: The Value of Education and Skills in Turbulent Times, which found that 74 per cent of employers are looking for conversational and associated intercultural competencies rather than language fluency. To succeed in a business environment, what is required is a knowledge and understanding of the culture in order to break the ice and to show cultural sensitivity in a business environment.

My Lords, the Worton report refers to tensions between pure modern languages departments and language centres in universities. Will the Government pay particular attention to the service role that language teaching has in universities, the importance of social scientists, natural scientists, engineers and others also picking up good language skills and the role in British universities of study abroad, which has been slipping badly in terms of the number of British students who are willing to spend an extra year studying abroad to pick up precisely the skills that business needs?

My Lords, we endorse the point about what goes on inside universities. Indeed, we would say that there needs to be more coherence between pure research and what goes on in other parts of the university. We are taking action to increase the numbers studying languages at a very high level. There is a £25 million initiative between HEFCE, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Scottish Funding Council, which aims to create a world-class cabal of researchers who will enhance the UK’s understanding of the Arabic-speaking world, China, Japan and eastern Europe, including areas of the former Soviet Union.

My Lords, given the importance of the early learning of languages—the earlier the better—when children can absorb languages like sponges, will the Minister be more specific about what plans the Government have to encourage universities to engage with primary and secondary schools to help to develop a language curriculum fit for the 21st century, which is recommendation 6 of the report?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right about the importance of this. The £8 million Routes into Languages programme, funded by the DCSF and HEFCE, has created consortia of schools, colleges and universities in every region of England to work together to stimulate demand for language learning in secondary and higher education. More than 50 per cent of universities are taking part in that programme and doing so very enthusiastically. It has been very well received in primary schools, where pupils have been visited by young people from universities who are much closer to them in age. That is valuable work.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the most important thing is that language learning starts in the earliest of years? That is when it really counts and makes a difference. Does not the example of bilingualism in Wales show how much of an education benefit it can be? It might even improve the Minister’s fluency in the French language.

I am so sensitive, my Lords, although I think that anything would improve my fluency. But I digress. The noble Lord is absolutely right. By 2010 we hope that all pupils at key stage 2 will be able to learn a foreign language and from September 2011 languages will become a compulsory part of the national curriculum, as recommended by our late lamented colleague Lord Dearing. We have trained over 4,500 teachers in primary languages specialism. A report published by Ofsted in January 2008 showed that trainees on the courses are being well prepared as future teachers of languages. We are providing £32.5 million of funding to local authorities in 2009-10 to support the delivery of primary languages.