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Education: Foreign Languages

Volume 748: debated on Tuesday 15 October 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps are being taken to arrest the decline in the number of foreign languages students in schools and universities.

My Lords, learning a language brings intellectual, cultural and economic benefits to individuals, employers, communities and, indeed, nations. The Government are committed to the teaching and learning of languages in schools. Indeed, from September 2014, primary schools will have to teach a foreign language at key stage 2. Thanks to the English baccalaureate, modern language GCSE entries have also reached their highest level this year, increasing by about 16%. We have also prioritised higher education funding for modern languages courses to ensure the continued availability of language study in higher education institutions.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. Before I press him further, perhaps I may offer my personal congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville. I look forward to receiving her post, and I hope she enjoys mine.

I very much welcome the move to have young children taught languages—I am sure that a great many of us do—but I wonder what will happen in the light of the present situation. The number of universities offering language degrees has fallen by 40% since 1998. With such a fall, what will happen to those young students when they grow up and find that there are not enough available language courses for them to study?

Of course, the noble Baroness comes to this with a great deal of expertise from her position as president of Birkbeck. The Government have continued through the Higher Education Funding Council for England to treat modern foreign languages as strategically important and vulnerable, and have provided additional funding to ensure that adequate levels of provision remain. To give an example, £3.1 million of further funding for a new three-year student demand-raising programme has already been allocated. We are also encouraged by the recent figures on the Erasmus programme, which show that more than 14,000 students from the UK are now participating in programmes at other institutions across Europe.

My Lords, I declare an interest as Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages. Is the Minister aware that there is now very robust evidence to show that languages at GSCE and A-level are subject to unfair, harsh and erratic marking? This deters schools from encouraging students to choose languages, in case their position in the league tables is damaged. It also deters students from choosing languages, because they know that their chances of getting top grades and university offers might be reduced. Will the Minister undertake to meet urgently with Ofqual and the examination boards, in order to ensure that an equitable marking system can be guaranteed before the 2014 exams?

I can certainly say to the noble Baroness that I will take back her suggestion to the department. It is important for all of us across the House to underline the importance of languages. The new national curriculum, which has now been published, includes a statutory foreign language at key stage 2. We believe that this will encourage students to take up modern languages, and indeed encourage schools to offer them. As I said earlier, the English baccalaureate is already encouraging more young people to take a language at GCSE level. Let us not forget that it was in 2004 that a statutory undertaking to provide languages at schools was removed. We are trying to restore that, and ensure that this medium to long-term process is long lasting.

Does my noble friend not agree with me that one very welcome development is that many universities now offer joint degrees? They teach modern languages alongside engineering or business studies, for example. This is exactly what employers tell us they want.

My noble friend makes a very important point. We need to understand the issue of languages at universities. Many universities offer languages as an addition to other disciplines, and people benefit from that. I come from the business community, and when I was on the board of a company we recognised that such degree courses provide a particular technical training alongside a language. Language training has changed—languages such as Chinese are much in demand by employers, and are being encouraged across the board.

I return to the noble Lord’s point about the requirement for primary school students to now be taught modern languages. Where will the teachers who will deliver languages in primary schools come from, and what qualifications will they be expected to have?

Again, the issue of teachers arises—you need teachers to teach languages in the first place. I am pleased to say that the Government are encouraging teacher supply on this level. We are making available an increasing level of bursaries for those students wishing to undertake teacher training in languages. Bursaries have been increased for up to 20,000 available candidates with first-class honours degrees who wish to pursue language training.

My Lords, does the noble Lord not agree that it would be a pity for efforts to teach foreign languages to be motivated by purely commercial interests? Trying to get people to be better business representatives abroad is surely not the only reason. Many of the people who are learning foreign languages find that in other countries they speak English anyway, and put us to shame. Would it not be a great shame if future generations did not at least have the ability to read some of the world’s great literature in its original language?

I agree with the noble Lord’s final point. As someone whose origins lie in the Indian subcontinent, I assure noble Lords that at home mother knew best, and we were taught languages appropriately to understand literature from across the world. While English remains the language of the modern business world, I referred in my opening Answer to the importance of education to understanding cultures across the world. Indeed, looking at the example of the Chancellor and the Mayor of London, we see that both their daughters are currently undertaking courses in Chinese. Anyone who has done business in China will know that without understanding Chinese in China you will not be able to expand your business.