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Education: Language Assistants

Volume 723: debated on Wednesday 22 December 2010


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the funding for the language assistants programmes run by the British Council is still under review.

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

My Lords, following the spending review, all funded programmes are being closely examined to determine their value for money and contribution to government priorities. I am pleased to confirm that the process has been completed for this scheme, and the language assistants programme will continue to be funded in England over the spending review period.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he accept that the programme deserves to be guaranteed beyond the spending review period? Without a year abroad as a language assistant, the quality of a modern languages degree will be undermined, especially for students who hope to go on to become teachers or professional linguists. Does he also agree that what works out at a cost of around only £126 a head is extraordinarily good value for money?

My Lords, I am very happy to confirm that it clearly is a successful programme, which is why we are happy to continue to fund it for the rest of the spending review period. However, I think that I would get into the most enormous trouble if I started committing the Government into the next spending review period.

My Lords, given the abolition of Becta, how will the Government ensure that schools have the appropriate ICT equipment, back-up and know-how to allow them to make the very cost-effective use that some schools are already making of teleconferencing in accessing native language speakers? Some schools are doing that very cost-effectively. Teleconferencing allows one native language speaker to support several schools from one location, but they must have the technology to do it.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for bringing that scheme to my attention. Clearly, technology can have an important role in many aspects of education, including the teaching of modern foreign languages. Given the work that Becta has done over a long period, including the work done under the previous Government, the general view is that the use of technology is well embedded in schools, but that is clearly something that we need to ensure continues.

The continuation of the British Council language assistants programme to 2015 is welcome. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said, it should go further for very practical reasons. Will the Minister acknowledge that, through this programme and many other means, the British Council has consistently fulfilled its mission of increasing the international understanding of, and trust in, the United Kingdom? Does he recall that in recent years the council has cut its UK workforce by a third, increased its turnover by over a third to more than £700 million and further demonstrated its increased face-to-face contact, especially with young people, by increasing that number from under 13 million to 20 million? Against that background, is it not clear that the Government’s cut of 26 per cent in public funding for the British Council is evidence that under this Government virtue hath its own punishment?

My Lords, I am very happy to acknowledge the contribution made by the British Council, particularly in the language assistants programme. I completely accept the extremely important role that that plays, particularly with young people. One of the reasons why I am very supportive of the work which the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, is doing to promote the teaching of modern foreign languages is that it helps to build ties between different countries. Those ties and the cultural role of that work are extremely important.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the work that is being done by the British Council in North Korea? I recently saw the work of English language teachers there. Over the past decade, they have been teaching teachers to teach English in schools in that most benighted of places. It is a wonderful sign of hope that English has now become the second language in North Korea as a result of the work of the British Council. Surely, we should do nothing whatever to jeopardise the small steps that are being taken in remote parts of the world where English may offer the best hope for people living in benighted places such as North Korea.

I agree with the point that the noble Lord makes but I also think that it is very much a two-way traffic. That is one of the benefits of this scheme. Other countries benefit from our young people going there and helping to spread English and we benefit from young people from those countries coming here and helping our young people to learn languages.

My Lords, clearly the Government have a lot of thinking to do to build fully on the Dearing report and to develop fully their policy on languages and IT. The Business Secretary is concerned about the Government’s rush to reform and the resulting mistakes. Education policy is a prime example of this, as are the Building Schools for the Future fiasco, the schools budget cut despite announcements, and the embarrassing U-turn on school sport. Does the Minister agree with his colleagues in the coalition that education policy is a car crash, or is it perhaps a rail crash?

My Lords, whichever travelling metaphor is used that my brain is not quick enough to think of, I feel extremely comfortable with the direction of travel taken by the Government on their education reforms. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able early on to introduce the Academies Bill. So far, we have received more than 330 applications from schools to convert to academies. We are making rapid progress across the piece in education.

As for modern languages, which was the point behind the original Question, from which we have deviated quite a long way, the review of the curriculum is an extremely important part of how we address the very serious challenges, some of which we inherited from the previous Government, around the teaching of modern foreign languages. We will announce the review in the new year, and the review will be a proper, thorough and rigorous look at the place of modern foreign languages in the primary and secondary curriculums.