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Education: Languages

Volume 736: debated on Wednesday 28 March 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the Language Trends survey 2011, published on 14 March 2012.

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, the Government welcome the finding of the language trends survey that in the past year there has been a 15 per cent increase in state schools now teaching languages to the majority of their GCSE pupils. We believe this shows that the English baccalaureate is starting to have a positive impact on take-up. We are considering the expert panel’s recommendations for the national curriculum review and will be announcing our plans shortly. This will be followed by a period of public consultation.

My Lords, I agree that the Government deserve to be congratulated on the boost to modern languages as a result of the EBacc. It is also a welcome finding of the survey that significantly more schools with the highest levels of social deprivation are making these improvements. However, does the Minister agree that it is of serious concern that as many as 46 per cent of state schools still say they have no intention of improving their language provision as a result of the EBacc? Does he agree that this points to the need to accept the recommendation of the expert panel and avoid repeating the mistakes of 2004, by restoring modern languages to the compulsory part of the curriculum at key stage 4?

My Lords, as I have said, we are considering the recommendations of the expert panel, which, as the noble Baroness says, were very clear. We will set out our response to that. The sharp uptake after a number of years of decline is encouraging. Given that it has happened in such a short time, there are grounds to hope that the process will go further. I understand the points that she makes and we will take them into account as we ponder our response to the expert panel.

My Lords, given the decline in language provision at independent schools—the reason for which is, I am told, dissatisfaction with the assessment of GCSEs and A-levels—would the Minister research this further in his conversations with that sector, to see why a past rich source of language scholars is in decline?

It is still the case that, for its size, the independent sector provides a disproportionate number of young people who go on to study modern languages. That is something that in broader terms one would want to do something about, to increase the uptake in the maintained sector. That is why these figures are encouraging. I am aware that concerns have been expressed over controlled assessment, grading and rigour at GCSE and A-level. Those are issues that Ofqual is leading on and looking at. I agree with the noble Lord that it is something we very much need to keep an eye on.

My Lords, when this House rather reluctantly agreed to the dropping of the modern foreign language commitment from the national curriculum in 2003, it was because the Minister at the time, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, agreed that a systematic programme of teaching languages to primary school pupils would be put in place. Will the Minister tell us what happened to this commitment to primary school pupils and how far are they systematically being taught languages?

Part of the answer to that will become clear in our response to the expert panel, which makes recommendations about whether teaching modern foreign languages should be statutory at primary school as well. That will become clear in due course. The last time research was carried out into the teaching of modern foreign languages at primary school, more than 90 per cent of primary schools were doing it. We have a challenge in getting specialist teachers of modern foreign languages into primary schools, and that is something we are seeking to address in looking at teacher training and teacher supply.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a chairman and adviser to many exporters, who will always benefit from a more competitive, globalised UK economy. Does the Minister agree that if we do not start selling around the world even more than we do today, especially in developing and emerging markets, this country will not generate the wealth, tax and jobs that 21st century Britain will need? One of the best ways of closing a sale is to talk to the would-be purchaser in their language. The way to do that is to put pressure on those in state education not to learn what I presume we all did at school at their age—French and German—but Spanish and Chinese. With English, they are the languages of the 21st century. I hope that the Minister agrees with me that the sooner we get Spanish and Chinese Mandarin into state education, the more competitive this nation will become.

I very much agree with the noble Lord. Spanish is one subject that has been growing. French and German have been most sharply declining in numbers and Spanish has been growing. Chinese is small, but growing. One of the initiatives that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State took when he visited China last year was an agreement with the Chinese Government to have 1,000 Chinese language teachers training over here in our system. I agree with him that it is extremely important from the business point of view, but it is also extremely important from a cultural educational point of view as well.

My Lords, could the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to encourage greater use of ICT for language teaching via social networking—