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Schools: Foreign Languages

Volume 759: debated on Monday 26 January 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of progress in teaching foreign languages in schools.

My Lords, the inclusion of a foreign language in the English baccalaureate measure has raised entries from pupils in England by 20% since 2012. We are reforming GCSEs and A-levels in foreign languages, with new teaching from September 2016, to ensure that they are demanding and relevant to employers, and further and higher education. From September last year, maintained primary schools have had to teach a foreign language to pupils from the age of seven.

Does my noble friend agree that one of the many advantages of learning a foreign language is the practical benefit to trade and diplomacy? In the case of non-European languages such as Cantonese, Mandarin and Arabic, where the sounds and structure are very different, is it not easier for children to learn them if they are taught them from a very early age?

I agree entirely with my noble friend about the importance of these matters. It is clear that developing language skills helps cognitive development. Offering more children the opportunity to learn Mandarin, for instance, will help to encourage mobility between the UK and China, and the long-term success of our economy. The Prime Minister has pledged to increase substantially the number of people learning Mandarin Chinese. The Confucius Institute at the IOE is leading the way in this regard.

My Lords, the Question is about progress. The problem is that we have no real idea about that, because there is no benchmark either to help schools to interpret the national curriculum guidelines consistently, or for pupils to know what level of competence they should achieve at the end of each key stage. Will the Minister agree to consider introducing a light-touch measure for progress linked to the Common European Framework and apply it to all key stages?

In April last year, we published a set of key principles for assessment, produced as a result of consultation on accountability. We also announced last May a new package of pupil assessment methods developed by teachers for their fellow teachers. Schools are able to develop whatever methodology of assessment they like. However, I will take note of what the noble Baroness says and look at that further.

Will my noble friend tell me what the Government are doing to ensure a supply of well qualified and competent teachers of modern languages, both at primary and secondary level?

I am delighted to answer my noble friend’s question. We have increased the bursary available to people with a first class degree in, for instance, languages, to £25,000. We are providing £2 million to fund nine projects across the country that will help primary and secondary teachers teach the new modern language curriculum at key stages 2 and 3. The National College for Teaching and Leadership facilitates an expert group for languages and also has a pilot scheme for subject enhancement in primary schools.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is the quality of foreign language teaching, particularly in primary schools, that remains a key challenge? I note what he has just said, but that teaching has been characterised by some as being “rusty O-level” and only a page or two ahead of the children. We all support the idea of extending foreign language teaching to primary schools, but it should not be at the expense of quality. Given what the Minister said, is he satisfied that enough extra resources are being put in to make that kind of teaching a distant memory?

We believe that they are, but obviously we will keep this matter under review. We do feel that we need to redress the situation in languages. The European Survey on Language Competences in 2012 showed us that our 2011 GCSE students were the worst at languages across all the countries surveyed.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, particularly in Canada, for example, schools are bilingual? Are there any plans to try to get more bilingual schools in England, particularly in some of the European languages?

I am sure that the noble Baroness will be delighted to hear that we have introduced six new bilingual schools under the free schools programme— notably the Bilingual Primary School in Brighton; the Europa School UK near Abingdon; the Judith Kerr Primary School; the La Fontaine Academy in Bromley; and the London Bridge School. Later this year, the Marco Polo free school will be opening.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that I have expressed concern in the past about the changes in teacher education and the increasing difficulty of national planning. In view of the shortage of language teachers, does he envisage a situation where there will be a complete shortage of language teachers in certain parts of the country, and how does he plan to rebalance this particular problem? Will he speak to the university colleges of education and the church colleges about the importance of teacher education?

I agree entirely with the noble Baroness about the importance of the matter. More than 1,800 places for modern language teacher trainees are allocated for 2015-16, which is an increase of 4%. As I say, we have substantially increased the bursaries, which were brought in for language teachers by this Government.

My Lords, for how many of our secondary and primary school pupils is English a second language, and is the Minister confident that we have sufficiently able teachers of English to make sure that, when children leave primary schools and go on to secondary school, they are fluent in the English language?

We are very focused on increasing the quality of literacy in this country. Our phonics programme is now acknowledged to have been a substantial success. We have focused the national curriculum, particularly in primary schools, much more on language skills.

Will the Minister say whether any resources have been made available to schools to bring in native speakers? It used to be that teaching assistants—for example, French, German, Italian or Spanish assistants—were available and could be funded, particularly in secondary schools. My guess is that in primary schools they would be even more useful. Is there any effort to make that happen?

The noble Baroness makes an extremely good point. We have given the British Council, for instance, £500,000 to recruit foreign language assistants to work in the UK. Currently, some 1,250 foreign language assistants have been recruited for English schools, and the British Council is working with Hanban to introduce a number of Chinese language assistants into the country.

Given the multicultural identity and diversity of ethnic backgrounds of people in the United Kingdom at present, there must be hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of people, including, I suspect, hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, who are bilingual. What thought have the Government given to, or what action have they taken on, mobilising this resource by focusing either on recruitment or on some form of potentially creative, if informal, educational process to make sure that we use the resources that our multicultural society has given us?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. I have talked about what we are doing in terms of teaching assessments, but I will look at the point he has made in more detail.

My Lords, will the Government consider special courses for foreign students wishing to learn the va et vient of English parliamentary language?

My Lords, given that there has been a substantial increase in foreign language teaching in primary schools, are the Government concerned about the drop from 84% in 2012 to 76% in 2013—and what specifically are they doing to make sure that primary foreign language teaching does not drop further?

I am not entirely sure that I understand the point; I may have to pick it up in correspondence.

Perhaps I may give the noble Lord another opportunity to answer the very pertinent question from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about the proportion of primary school children in England for whom English is not their first language. I think that the Minister inadvertently forgot that question.

We are fully aware of the high proportion of primary school pupils in England for whom English is not their first language. Many schools are suffering with pupils who come to the country not speaking any English at all. With regard to which languages pupils may study at primary school, of course they could study their native language but that would probably not pass muster with Ofsted in a broad and balanced curriculum.