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Schools: Modern Languages

Volume 719: debated on Tuesday 8 June 2010


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what proposals they have for the teaching of modern languages in primary schools.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and I declare an interest as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages.

My Lords, we are considering our priorities for the national curriculum, including what subjects it should cover. We will be announcing our plans in due course.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but as languages at key stage 2 are no longer to become statutory, will sufficient funding still be available for teacher training in this area? Research shows that learning foreign languages improves children’s written and spoken English, and languages are a significant part of the “vast divide” between state and independent schools, which only yesterday the Government said they want to close.

I start by paying tribute to the work of the noble Baroness as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages. I know that she has kept the flame for modern languages burning and I agree with her wholeheartedly about that. I am a great fan of modern languages and, if it is not too rash a thing to say on my first outing at Oral Questions, of ancient ones as well. As the noble Baroness knows, over 90 per cent of primary schools are offering a language to some of their pupils at key stage 2—70 per cent to all pupils. I welcome also the progress made by the previous Government in attracting and training more language teachers for primary schools. I reassure the noble Baroness that the spending cuts announced for the current financial year should not affect funding for primary languages or for the training of teachers.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that a problem here is that English is the second language for 27 per cent of pupils coming into schools?

I agree with the noble Baroness. Obviously that increases the challenges that primary school teachers have in teaching languages. However, I have already had the privilege of seeing many good examples where schools are coping with that challenge and managing to teach modern foreign languages as well.

My Lords, can the Minister reassure the House that the Government are aware of the importance of languages for our international competitiveness, particularly at the moment? Can he say a little more than he said in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, about how the Government intend to continue the recruitment, education and training of teachers, which seems particularly vulnerable at the moment?

As to helping international competitiveness and business, I agree that modern languages have an important part to play. I also have a slightly old fashioned view that education is a good in its own right; I do not wholeheartedly share the concentration there has been in recent years on education being merely a means to a job. As to the funding for recruiting more language teachers, I understand the points made by the right reverend Prelate. As I said, funding is in place for this year. We will continue to look at the issue but in the context of the difficult overall public spending decisions in the CSR.

The Minister has already drawn attention to the fact that, although 90 per cent of all primary schools teach some foreign languages, slightly fewer than 70 per cent provide such teaching for all stage 2 pupils. Is there not a risk in this difference in provision of something which everyone accepts is of benefit to all children? Should it be applied selectively in this way?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for that important point. There will be a consultation as part of the review of the overall national curriculum and how it should be delivered. I hope that as many noble Lords as possible—I do not think many will need much invitation—will contribute to that review because it is extremely important that we get this right.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that whereas teaching primary school children modern languages is obviously of great benefit to them, it has to be sustained into the secondary system as well? There is, I suspect, an increasing shortage of suitable candidates, and the issue of training teachers will be resolved only if the teaching of modern languages in secondary schools is made compulsory to a higher level than is currently the case and more people are encouraged to take them on at university.

I understand those points very clearly. In regard to the overall review of the curriculum, its content and the question of what should and should not be compulsory, we shall need to reflect on those points and come up with conclusions in due course.

Given the continued need for more specialist teachers and the continued budgetary constraints, will the Minister join me in welcoming the British Council scheme which funds temporary cover for teachers to go away during term time, as well as their own time, to foreign countries to increase their language skills? Will he encourage other organisations to put their money into similar schemes?

My Lords, I will be very interested to hear more about the British Council scheme; it sounds extremely good. I would like to talk to the noble Baroness about that and to see whether we could encourage other organisations into it.

My Lords, following the excellent debate on the Academies Bill yesterday—and I hear what the noble Lord has said about reflecting on the teaching of languages in primary schools—I wonder whether, in the Government’s view, the Government’s primary academies should be obliged to teach every child a language. Have the Government made any assessment of the impact of schools opting out of funding provision for teaching languages in other schools in areas where it is a shared service?

The basic question about the overall content, how the curriculum should be constructed and how that applies to all schools is one that the Government are looking at, with regard to academies. There is a presumption that academies will have slightly more freedom over their curriculum than other schools. They are obviously under an obligation to provide a broad and balanced curriculum. Clearly, many academies are already providing excellent language teaching as part of those courses.