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Schools: Modern Languages

Volume 773: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the announcement by OCR that they are to discontinue GCSE and A-level examinations in French, German and Spanish.

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

The number of pupils entering for a modern language GCSE has risen by 20% since 2010, reversing the previous 10-year decline. It is of course disappointing that OCR has decided to discontinue modern foreign language qualifications, but fewer than 10% of students currently take their qualifications in these subjects. We do not believe that OCR’s decision will have a significant impact, and of course schools will be able to choose from the courses offered by the other exam boards.

My Lords, I am pleased to hear the Minister sounding so optimistic, but can she give the House a categorical assurance that if the OCR decision should trigger a domino effect among the other awarding bodies, Her Majesty’s Government will put as much effort into stopping it as they did recently and so successfully into saving exams in less-taught languages such as Arabic and Polish? In the meantime, is the department prepared to consider a mechanism such as a minimum service agreement for the other exam boards to ensure that French, German and Spanish are secure?

The good news is that increasing numbers of young people are taking modern language GCSEs, and I can certainly reassure the noble Baroness that in September schools will still be able to choose from 27 GCSE, AS and A-level courses in French, German and Spanish. The three other exam boards are continuing to offer these courses, and with increasing numbers of pupils sitting them we are confident that they will continue to do so.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s optimism and her positive response, but perhaps I may put it to her that in a globalised world, where communication is obviously at a premium, the decision of even one exam board to retreat from modern languages provision is a retreat from reality and from opportunity for young people. Will the Minister be more assertive in the view that, should there be any further deterioration, the Government will resist the spread of the practice of withdrawing essential modern languages from the examination curriculum?

As I have said, we are seeing an increase in the number of pupils studying languages and we want that to continue. I certainly agree with the noble Lord about the importance, and in fact the value, of modern languages to young people in the global economy. Businesses greatly value language skills, which is why we are increasing the amount of training and help that we provide to teachers in order to teach modern languages curricula. Across a number of projects we have invested £1.8 million around the country to help schools to support one another in order to ensure that teachers are able to teach modern languages to the highest standard, because, as we know, inspirational teachers are the ones who really help young people to achieve and excel in their subjects.

My Lords, the Minister has referred to the welcome increase in the take-up of GCSEs in modern languages, but there has been a dramatic fall in take-up at A-level, with a consequent knock-on effect on university places and of course the start of a vicious circle there. What specific measures will the Government take to promote an increase in the number of A-levels in modern languages being taken?

Again, I am pleased to say that A-level entries in modern languages have increased by nearly 4% since 2014, but I accept the point that we need to do more. Obviously through its support for strategically important subjects, HEFCE has invested £3.1 million in trying to increase student interest in modern languages. That includes engaging with employers to stimulate demand, promoting the employability of graduates, and increasing the participation of students in spending a year abroad. Although universities are autonomous, a number of them offer free language courses to students studying other subjects. Particularly in science, for instance, a number of universities offer chemistry with, say, German in order to encourage more young people to keep up their language skills.

My Lords, it is pretty well known that learning a language is easier the younger you start. A number of primary schools in the country—probably quite a large number—now offer modern language opportunities for their students. Can the Minister tell us how that programme is working out and whether there is any evidence yet that it is affecting the numbers who are choosing to take modern languages once they get to secondary school?

I am afraid that I do not have the figures specifically on primary schools, but I can say that with the freedom that we are giving head teachers through our education reforms we have seen a number of bilingual primary schools open for the first time. The Judith Kerr Primary School, for example, offers bilingual education, providing lessons in German alongside English, and the La Fontaine Academy offers French alongside English. Both are primary schools. I absolutely agree that we want to encourage children to start speaking languages at a young age, which is why, as I mentioned, we have invested in a number of projects to help encourage teaching. The Rushey Mead Academy in Leicester, for instance, is working with five other teaching alliances to focus and help primary schools on grammar and assessment. The Association for Language Learning is working with 500 schools across the north-east, the east of England and the Midlands to set up regional centres to improve teaching and training and to share best practice. We want school-to-school collaboration to help this to go through the system.

Has the Minister noted the reason OCR has given for discontinuing these examinations, which is that the time needed to prepare for the mode of assessment was excessive and it did not feel that it could do it responsibly within the time? This was a particularly well-reputed set of language exams. Does the Minister agree with me that the assessment tail is wagging the education dog here?

As I have said, we are disappointed in OCR’s decision, but, once again, the three other exam boards will continue to offer 27 GCSE, AS and A-level courses in French, German and Spanish. So the other exam boards are continuing to show commitment in this area.

Is the Minister having discussions with employers’ organisations about the need for qualified graduates with modern languages? One of the huge competitive disadvantages faced by United Kingdom firms is that they have to recruit abroad for modern languages, because there is an insufficient number of people capable of speaking those languages who are home-grown here.

Certainly it is very clear how much business recognises the value of languages. Indeed, a recent report by the CBI, published last year, said that 70% of businesses value foreign languages, particularly in the context of building contacts and relationships overseas. As I said, universities in particular are playing a role in discussions with employers to help to make sure that graduates understand the opportunities that are open to them. Of course, as we look to improve careers education within the school system, that will be another way to drum the message into young people about the value of languages, and I hope that with inspirational teachers to help them we will see a continuing growth in the number of young people speaking a foreign language in this country.

My Lords, there are two issues here. First, although the Minister said that the teaching of modern languages increased with the introduction of the English baccalaureate, it has since begun to decline again. I fear that that position might well be exacerbated by the unfortunate decision of OCR. Secondly, the Government’s qualification reform programme is massive in scale and has been pushed through to a rather unrealistic schedule, as alluded to by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill. We are almost at the end of May, yet a number of teachers in about six disciplines still do not know what they will be asked to teach their students in September. Can the Minister say who she holds responsible for this? Is it the Department for Education or Ofcom?

The noble Lord is quite right that the EBacc has had a positive impact on the number of children taking up languages in schools. Our goal is for 90% of pupils to take the core academic subjects, including languages at GCSE, so we hope to see that continue.

My Lords, the UK’s poor performance in language teaching and learning is surely one of the factors that hinders our international competitiveness. Given that HMG recently announced that they were investing £10 million in promoting Mandarin in schools, will the Minister consider allocating a similar sum to boost the take-up of other languages that are important to our economic, diplomatic and cultural success, including French, German and Spanish?

The Chancellor specifically announced funding for Mandarin because we start from a very low base. With China’s increasing importance in the global economy, it was an area where we felt that additional investment would be welcome. As I said, French, German and Spanish remain the languages that are most often taught in schools. We are certainly trying to continue to increase the quality of language teaching. I mentioned several projects where we have given additional funding. We also want to encourage our best language graduates to go into teaching, which is why we have increased the amount that they can get in bursaries if they decide to do so. We hope to continue that.

My Lords, following the question from my noble friend Lord Kinnock, to what extent has the Minister’s department considered the economic implications of the present policies? How do we compare with other countries in Europe, which I am confident we will decide in a few weeks to remain with? At a funeral a few days ago, I met a young English boy who attends a school in Amsterdam. He is quite proficient already in Chinese. What is the position in Belgium, for example, where two languages are compulsory? Even when I was in school in the 1940s, two languages, in addition to English, were compulsory.

I certainly agree that learning a language is hugely important and beneficial, which is why, as I have said, we are delighted to see an increase in the number of pupils at GCSE studying languages and a more modest increase in pupils at A-level. But we also want to encourage pupils to get a taste of other cultures, which is why, in 2014, the British Council launched a campaign calling on schools to back more overseas exchange trips. In secondary schools, actually quite a small percentage of children get the opportunity to do that. Going to another country whose language you are learning can often help to instil a further love of that language. There are certainly a lot more things that we can do to ensure that we give our young people the best opportunities to take the advantages that learning language skills can give them.