Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the importance of modern foreign language teaching in schools and universities, and of the impact of the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union on the sustainability of that teaching.
My Lords, I start by declaring my interests as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, which is supported by the British Council, and vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists. I thank all noble Lords in advance for their contributions and look forward to the Minister’s reply. I am also grateful to the House of Lords Library for its excellent briefing pack.
Her Majesty’s Government have a great track record of saying positive things about learning foreign languages and of taking important initiatives to back up their fine words. As recently as last November, Schools Minister Nick Gibb said that the Government were committed to,
“remaining open to the world after we leave the EU and to becoming even more global and internationalist in our outlook. Improving the take-up and teaching of modern foreign languages in our schools … is an important part of achieving that goal”.
He added that there were,
“business, cultural and educational benefits to learning a language”.—[Official Report, Commons, 30/11/17; cols. 579-80.]
I would only add diplomacy, defence and security to the Minister’s list of benefits.
Important initiatives taken include making a foreign language part of the national curriculum for key stage 2; the EBacc has boosted take-up of language GCSEs; over 100 language teacher trainer scholarships have been awarded; and £10 million of government money has been invested in the Mandarin Excellence Programme. But—and I am sure noble Lords could all hear that but coming—despite all this, language teaching and learning in our schools and universities are in deep crisis. In 2004, languages became optional after the age of 14, reducing GCSE take-up from nearly 80% to half that. A compulsory language as part of the EBacc managed to get that back to 49%, but that may now be in reverse as entries fell in 2017 by 7.3%, and EBacc has had little, if any, impact on continued take-up post-16. Numbers taking French A-level have declined by one-third and for German by one-half. Just in case any noble Lords should think that that is not such a bad thing these days, when we need Mandarin more than we need French, I draw attention to the recent report from the British Council, which said that the top five languages needed by the UK for our prosperity and influence post Brexit are Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic and German.
The decline at A-level has the obvious knock-on effect for applications for MFL degrees at university, which have dropped by 57% in 10 years. Over 50 universities have scrapped some or all of their MFL degree courses. Uncertainty over the UK’s continued participation in the Erasmus+ programme is one reason for the drop in applications. I cannot emphasise strongly enough how important this scheme is for giving students of all disciplines, not just the linguists, the opportunity to improve language skills and develop an international and cross-cultural mindset. A study in the US and British Academy research show that that employers rate these skills at least as highly, or even more highly, than expertise in STEM subjects. Graduates who have spent a year abroad are 23% less likely to be unemployed than those who have not. Will the Minister give an assurance that after Brexit the UK, along with Norway and Switzerland, will continue to be part of Erasmus+ beyond 2020, especially as the European Commission plans to double participation in this scheme by 2025?
Erasmus+ is also a vital part of the supply chain for MFL teachers. The existing shortage risks becoming much worse because an estimated 35% of MFL teachers and lecturers are non-UK EU nationals, as are 85% of language classroom assistants. Unless they are guaranteed residency status post Brexit, MFL teaching in our schools could collapse. We are not producing enough languages graduates ourselves to meet the shortage, which the Department for Education estimated at 3,500 if the Government are to meet their EBacc target. We know that EBacc figures would shoot up if only more pupils were doing a language at GCSE, so it is very much in the Government’s own interests to protect and improve the supply of MFL teachers. Can the Minister say whether the Government have any firm data on the numbers of current MFL teachers from the EU? What proportion of applicants for initial teacher training in MFL and what percentage of MFL teachers leaving the profession are EU citizens? We have heard an awful lot recently about the dramatic reduction in the number of nurses coming from the EU to work in the NHS; it would be sensible to have equivalent data on MFL teachers to help shape the kind of training and recruitment programmes we might need to plug the gaps.
Can the Minister comment on the conflict between the EBacc and the Progress 8 system for measuring schools’ performance at GCSE? Languages are not compulsory under Progress 8 and there have been reports that some schools are using Progress 8 to avoid doing languages at all. That undermines the EBacc. Can the Minister say what specific action the Government can take to address this? I would also like to know how the Government intend to respond to evidence, most recently from the latest Language Trends Survey, that pupils in state schools—especially those in deprived areas, and including primary schools—are benefiting least from the advantages of learning a foreign language. Lower take-up at GCSE correlates with regions of poor productivity and low skill levels. For example, in the north-east in 2016, only 43% of pupils sat a GCSE in a language, compared with 75% in some London boroughs. Only one-third of state schools employ a language assistant, compared with 73% of independent schools. Only 30% of state schools still run exchange trips with a host family; 77% of independent schools do so. There is a correlation between pupils on free school meals and low MFL take-up, and pupils in deprived areas are increasingly allowed to drop their language after only two years in secondary school, or even withdrawn from language classes altogether. How does any of this help the social mobility that the Government say they are committed to?
I believe we need a cross-government national languages recovery programme, because the crisis is not just for the DfE to sort out. Many departments have a critical stake in making good our languages deficit as a nation: Justice, Health, Foreign Affairs, Defence, Media, International Development and, of course, Trade and Industry. We need more home-grown linguists and to rely less on importing our language skills. This challenge predated the EU referendum, of course, but the reality of Brexit, with the Government’s ambition for the UK to be a leader in global free trade and more influential on the world stage, makes it all the more urgent. As I said last week in the debate on the industrial strategy, speaking only English in the 21st century is as much a disadvantage as speaking no English. Language skills are a key enabler of success and need to be woven into all ages and stages of education and training, including apprenticeships and technical education.
Finally, will the Minister undertake to initiate discussions across government to kick-start a new strategic plan to rebuild the UK’s language skills? Will he support the proposal to designate a Minister with cross-government responsibility for languages, to ensure that, this time, decisive leadership achieves a step change in language learning in schools, FE and HE? The education sector could learn a lot from looking at the positive initiatives already being taken by the Foreign Office and the Army, for example. The Government could do a huge amount by selling the case for languages to students, parents, head teachers and employers alike. By no means does everyone need to be a specialist linguist, but the soft power advantage in the 21st century belongs to the multilingual citizen and nation, not the monolingual Brits of the past who thought that all they had to do to be understood was shout more loudly in English.
My Lords, we should all be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for introducing the debate and giving us an opportunity to consider this issue. At a time when there has never been more need to communicate internationally and globally, I was appalled to learn that entries for GCSE modern foreign languages have almost halved and that 50 modern foreign language departments across higher education have closed in the past 15 years. The noble Baroness has given us more detailed statistics on that. It was always a problem to recruit sufficient Brits to work in the European Union institutions because of the lack of adequate language skills. For this reason, in recent years we have fallen well below our quotas in those institutions.
Now more than ever we need foreign language skills, not only for the important and wide-ranging trade negotiations that lie ahead in the post-Brexit world— because of my particular interest in Latin America, I emphasise the importance of Spanish and Portuguese in this context—but also to sustain the tourist industry on which I foresee the United Kingdom becoming more and more dependent. I hope therefore that my noble friend the Minister will be able to reassure us that his department has taken on board the checklist created by the APPG on Modern Languages, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and of which I am a member, and that it will be pursued.
In the short time available I wish to raise two specific issues. The first is one I have raised before as a suggestion to encourage young people to acknowledge the benefit of studying foreign languages. It is not only to use them directly as teachers, interpreters and translators, but as an additional asset to other professional qualifications. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers and many other professionals can add to the value of their work if they speak another language or languages reasonably fluently. As a lawyer, I am an example of that. I believe that the Government could give a lead on this by ensuring that application forms for Civil Service jobs in all departments include a box asking which other languages the applicant can speak. This would at least enable people to realise that the ability to speak another language is a plus factor. Can the Minister indicate whether this happens across the board, or indeed in any department other than the Foreign Office?
The second issue relates to what I consider to be a hidden treasure in the United Kingdom. It is a fact that millions of British citizens living here speak, for example, Gujarati, Hindi, Bengali, Farsi or Arabic as their first language. In any assessment of modern foreign language teaching, do the Government take this into account and in what ways are they building on that resource?
I would like to have pursued other aspects which were raised in the excellent briefing and in the noble Baroness’s introduction, in particular emphasising the importance of the Erasmus programme, but I feel sure that many of these issues will be raised during the debate.
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for introducing the debate and for her ongoing commitment over many years to this subject. I think that we are making progress, but there is still a lot more to do. I accept absolutely the premise of the debate, which is that whatever happens to our relationship with the European Union, we are going to need more mastery of languages, not less.
It is now almost two decades since the Government of whom I was a member transferred the power to decide whether key stage 4 students should learn a modern foreign language from central government to head teachers. To be honest, I did not think that 16 years later we would still be in this position, and that is what I want to address today. The vision we had when making that change was not to be where we are now. It has often been seen to be a battle whether modern foreign languages should be made compulsory right through school. A lot of time and energy has been wasted on that which might have been better used to address other issues. The evidence for that is twofold. The EBaccs arrived. Given the consequences of not getting EBaccs for the school, it was almost compulsory to have modern foreign languages. Fewer than 50 per cent of students have actually taken a language. Even though we have got almost compulsory modern foreign languages in key stage 4, the drop-off at A-level is quite significant. If you look at other difficult and challenging linear subjects, such as maths, physics, the science subjects and computing, we have not seen that. We have seen either a steadying of A-level entrances, or a slight increase over recent years. I have come to the conclusion that solving this is not a battle about whether it is compulsory, it is about what we are doing in the classroom and how we are teaching modern foreign languages. One thing in the briefing that quite saddened me was that secondary school students saw the need for modern foreign languages but chose not to study them because they did not like the lessons. They were not enjoying them. That is not a criticism of the brilliant teachers who try to do their best in difficult circumstances.
My points to the Minister are that I absolutely still believe that the emphasis should still be on primary level. When you look at primary level, the lack of consistency guarantees that secondary level does not stand a chance of getting it right. In every other national curriculum subject, they link with primary. They know what they are building on. They know what the next stage is. I really like the idea of a language recovery programme. That is because it implies we are going to do something different, that we have got the determination but we are not looking back—we are learning from what is taking place.
My final comments would be: concentrate on primary level. I would make it compulsory for primary. I would not make it an entitlement. There is a big difference between the two. I would concentrate on pedagogy. What did we learn from the Mandarin experiment where it is eight hours a week rather than 30 minutes a week? Is that a better way of teaching modern foreign languages? As ever, we should invest in the professional development of those who are working with our key stage 1 and key stage 2 children.
My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for initiating this debate. My mother was German. She met my father at the end of the Second World War. He was in the Royal Scots Fusiliers. My mother came from a large family with sisters and brothers who settled all over Europe. I have cousins in Switzerland, Holland and Austria. My cousins and their children all speak immaculate English. Why? Because it is compulsory at school. They start learning a language at the age of five. That spreads all the way through. We can be quite negative about the facts and figures. Let us remind ourselves of those, because they need to be reiterated quite often. GCSE entries have almost halved since 1997. Fewer than half students entered for maths take a modern foreign language. The noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, made the point that those doing sciences or professional degrees are less likely to do a modern foreign language. This has led to an inevitable 57% drop in undergraduate numbers and—this is the most frightening figure—an average of three modern foreign language departments closing each year. Over 16,000 UK students are involved in the Erasmus programme. I hope the new Universities Minister in the other place will be more enthusiastic about sustaining our participation than his predecessor, Jo Johnson.
The decline in the number of students taking A-levels has reached a dangerous level. But let us be positive. Primary schools are now teaching modern foreign languages. Teachers are, in many schools, reporting great successes. But if we are to really make that work, it has to start at the age of five. It also has to link in with secondary schools. What happens is that you get children from primary schools up to a proficient level in, say, French or Spanish. They transfer to the secondary school and the secondary school does a different subject. All that work in developing the subject does not get realised. I do not have an easy answer, but I do know that is one of the major problems. The other problem in primary schools is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, the need to have more graduate teachers who have a modern foreign language as their degree. As we have heard previously, that is becoming less and less likely, because departments are closing down. There needs to be a training programme for those teachers and also for teaching assistants. Many primary schools use teaching assistants to do conversational work with groups of children. Whatever happens in any dreadful Brexit process, it is important that for the future prosperity of the country, we get this right.
My Lords, I am grateful for what has been said in the previous four speeches, particularly by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins. I am a fellow officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages. We are very proud of the noble Baroness because of her leadership and all the unstinting work that she has done with the British Council to promote this issue. It is very easy and tempting still for foolish people in Britain to regard it as a marginal subject of no consequence whatever; it is extremely important. Even if we want the subject just for cultural and intellectual reasons, there is also the reality that we lose business at the margin all over the world because we do not bother to have proper language teaching and learning in our schools and universities, and in business.
That is unlike in other countries. I admire the supreme modesty and efficiency of the German population, most of whom speak better English than we do when we go over there. When I try to insist that I do a speech in German—because I speak German myself—they always say, “Oh, no, do it in English because we can follow it easily”. It is a remarkable achievement in a country like that, of 82 million people, that they have been so caring about this subject.
I personally am lucky because—like the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and others, I think—I always found languages extremely easy. Therefore, I mastered at a very early age the main European languages plus Russian and did not find them difficult for some bizarre, rather nerdy reason; I found them very easy and exciting. I started quite late, being six, seven or eight before I started reading some French. Even infants, if they get the access through their parents, can start learning languages as if they are games, puzzles, contests and competitions. They really enjoy that. It is one reason why children in Britain are learning Mandarin with incredible proficiency at a very young age. Spanish is a very easy language. As we know, it is completely phonetic, except where it is indicated with an appropriate symbol. It is therefore easier for those languages to be grasped at an early age.
However, they are all important. Those mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, show the priorities but also the need not to neglect other languages—I am glad that she and others in this debate have mentioned the Indian subcontinent as well. It is interesting to see how the Chinese have dealt with learning English. It is now a huge learning system in China, a country that need not have bothered because it was very committed to its own activities.
It is important for business to take these things up inside companies and with the trade unions. It has always been difficult to persuade people when they say, “Oh, well, it is not my subject. I’m concerned with the job and the work we do”. But languages is not just at the margin; it is intrinsic to the very salvation of this country. Bad effects are coming along from this Brexit nightmare—and it is not just a debate about interesting possibilities and options; it is a total nightmare for this country. Therefore, one of the best things to do is to stay in the EU and encourage a language learning programme with it as well as with others.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins. I want to say something about the general importance of the subject, and then some specific things about business and primary. The noble Baroness has set out a lot of the data, which is the foundation.
In my tradition there is a myth called the Tower of Babel, which many of your Lordship will know, which points to the reality of the human condition being that we live in a massive number of language groups. That is either a challenge for conflict or an opportunity for co-operation. The key is for language therefore to be used creatively.
The late Helmut Schmidt, the former Chancellor of West Germany, wrote that nobody should go into politics unless they can speak at least two languages—so they would have to join the noble Baroness’s group. That is important because he meant that we need to understand not just our own culture but how other people think through their language, so that they can look at you, your business activities and your political values—whatever it is. Communication depends on understanding language not just in your space but from somebody else’s point of view.
Before we just think, “Well, we’re all English; we just speak one language”, as the noble Lord has just referred to, we should remember that we are all linguistic anyway. We speak the language of the head and the language of the heart, the language of consciousness and the language of unconsciousness. There is a universal language, which religion, sport and compassion unite us in, across spoken languages. We are all linguistic creatures, so we can aim high. We do not have to think this is just about a few people patching the thing up as we try and struggle against collapse.
I will give a little example of why it is so important, again from my own discipline. In medieval times, a word in the Bible was translated as “do penance”, meaning in relation to an institution. The Reformation discovered the word actually means not “do penance” but “repent”, which is a state of the heart. That is a totally different understanding of the language, from an institutional frame to the individual having values and aspirations. That is why it is important to get language right and to understand it.
We need a strategic policy to put languages at the heart of our learning. I support everything that has been said about primary schools. I have a granddaughter called Lila, who at nursery school, at the age of three or four, was learning Spanish and was so excited about it. She could say the words. There is something in all human beings that can be developed for language, and we have to press on and do that.
I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us that there could be a strategy that puts language at the heart of learning, both to grow human beings more fully and to equip us to take our part in an international world of business, politics and values. Without that, we will be very impoverished.
My Lords, first I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, who is tireless on this subject. I also want to follow her in giving credit to the Government for what has already been achieved. But as all noble Lords have said, there are huge challenges still to overcome.
I have one big point to make here, following what the right reverend Prelate said. Why does this matter? First, the idea that English is the international language is a massive exaggeration. There are billions of people who do not speak English. It is actually shocking arrogance to say that everyone else should learn our language because we cannot be bothered to learn theirs. But above all, speaking a foreign language does much more than give you the linguistic ability. It opens your mind to other cultures and opens a door to other mindsets and to understanding how other people live and think and act. It is this which lubricates international trade and international relations.
This is absolutely vital in today’s world, with rapid globalisation in trade, finance and investment, with growing nationalism, with the emergence of great economies in China, the Indian subcontinent, Latin America and Africa, and of course with Brexit now taking place. We cannot afford to be inward-looking and insular. The UK has a population of 65 million people. Russia has 140 million. The other 27 members of the EU have 270 million. South America and Latin America have over half a billion. Africa has more than 1 billion, India 1.2 billion and China 1.3 billion. The UK has to wake up.
My message to the Government and to the Minister is this. Yes, please carry on doing all you can in your school reforms to embed still further the learning of foreign languages in our schools and other institutions. But on top of that, we have to think big. So many of our young people are by instinct internationally minded. It should not be difficult to engage with them so they see the benefit, the stimulus and the joy of going to another country and talking its language, sharing their experiences and creating relationships and bonds of mutual understanding. So let us get some of Britain’s most creative minds on to this.
This is the challenge that has been raised by the noble Baroness—we have to change our thinking big time. It cannot just be the responsibility of the Department for Education or of the Government alone. Britain is at a pivotal moment in its history. The world is going to change in ways we cannot even imagine. Yes, we need practical policies, but we also need inspiring leadership, imagination and passion.
My Lords, I am very pleased to be able to join in this debate on the teaching of modern foreign languages. I too have been a language teacher, not just of foreign languages but of English. Having heard others speak, I can certainly support the fact that in trade and in doing work with people in other countries, it is essential to have a foreign language. As somebody said to me the other day, you can buy in English but you cannot sell in English, so I hope that we will take this forward.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, has already said, provision has dramatically reduced in schools, universities and higher education. I heard what the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, and I agree that it is particularly concerning that so many children in schools were discouraged from taking foreign languages and that those schools were in some of the most deprived areas of the country. It seems to be a huge injustice that, as we have just heard from the noble Lord, the values of learning a foreign language have been denied to many children not only because they were not encouraged but because they were discouraged from taking a foreign language as part of the drive to raise standards.
In addition to what has been said already, I support compulsory language learning in primary schools. However, if we are to have a national language recovery programme, we will have to move very quickly, increasing capacity within schools and universities, increasing the number of teachers and changing the culture that somehow we in this nation do not really need to speak foreign languages. As someone who has taught adults, I would also say that we need to incentivise people in work. I think that employers are very keen to have their employees speak foreign languages—more so in view of Brexit. Something like £45 billion is lost to GDP through the lack of language learning skills.
When I taught English as a foreign language in France, there were many incentives to learn a foreign language. Employees were given the time to do so by their employers, they were given help with payments, and the Government backed a national scheme. That was some time ago—lots of people in France now speak English. However, people took that up, and it is a fallacy to say that people in adult life cannot learn languages. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, talked about methodologies in schools, but there are now many ways of learning languages. I know many adults who have learned foreign languages online, doing it in their spare time. That is particularly attractive to young people, who I understand are more and more motivated to learn foreign languages because they do not believe that they were very well taught in school.
Therefore, I would definitely back a national language recovery scheme. I very much hope that the Minister can give us some encouragement on that but, from my point of view, I would add: do not let us just leave it to schools and teachers; let us get the adults learning as well.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on enabling this important debate. I endorse what has been said by previous speakers about the importance of language teaching in the light of Brexit and the potential challenges to sustaining it. I particularly pick up the point made about our security and defence interests, which are definitely reliant on our ability to communicate and understand other countries. Without a language base, that becomes a very difficult proposition.
I want to draw particular attention to the international baccalaureate in this context. The IB is most familiar to many of us as a stretching curriculum and examination for sixth formers, but in fact it is very much more than that. There are IB programmes for all stages of school education, from primary right through to sixth form. I am pleased to declare an interest as a governor of a state academy that uses the IB to good effect throughout the school, using the middle years programme and the sixth-form programme, and moving towards using a primary school programme for the IB.
The UK is moving out of the EU and into a new relationship with countries in Europe and beyond. In that context, the educational philosophy and principles of the IB—a global outlook supported by strong language teaching, and the development of open-minded and inquiring thinkers who are equipped with the critical skills to succeed in the world—are more important than ever. We need that approach if we are to succeed in this new and challenging environment. The IB curriculum provides that in a way that is acceptable to children right through the ability spectrum, from the less able to the most academic.
I very much hope, therefore, that the Government will encourage more schools, including those that serve less-privileged communities, to see the importance of IB principles and take the opportunity to promote them through adopting IB programmes. The school where I am a governor started as a school in serious difficulty. It rebooted itself, including by adopting the IB principles and has now moved to having an outstanding status. Part of the reason for that, I think, is the aspiration and the vision that the IB gives of being part of a global community of learning. That outward-looking approach is something that many of our schools would benefit from in the current climate.
My Lords, as a modern language graduate and one-time teacher, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for this timely debate and for her energetic support for modern languages. It is an enthusiasm which I share.
The UK does not have a proud record of speaking other languages, although our diplomatic and security services have been world leaders, often in somewhat obscure languages, and we have certainly seen excellence in academic departments and in parts of business, which have proved that the British do have the capacity, if not the will, to enjoy languages other than English. The position in schools and universities—as we have heard—is close to critical, as various school initiatives reduced the importance of languages, which fed straight through to diminished university departments and thence into fewer committed language teachers. The discouragement of EU national staff will make the situation even worse.
As members of the EU, we have been sheltered to a degree on the need for European languages, as English was deemed one of the languages of choice. But there will be no need for our European neighbours to continue to give such priority to English if it is no longer one of the member languages. A while ago, I asked a Business Minister whether linguists were included on trade trips and received the answer, “It isn’t necessary; they all speak English”. Maybe that is true around the table, but what about the informal talk and exchanges away from negotiations and the snippets of gossip or insight which might be deal-makers? What about the courtesy of speaking to people in their own languages, as the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, said? And what about Willy Brandt’s famous saying, mentioned by my noble friend Lady Janke:
“If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen”?
Research by Professor James Foreman-Peck for UK Trade & Investment demonstrated that deficient language skills cost the UK economy 3.5% of GDP per year, which is around £48 billion each year—a sizeable sum.
If and when we leave the EU, it will be essential for our citizens to be able to engage in conversation, in negotiations and in talking personally or professionally with our neighbours in their own languages. Take-up is not helped by the view that it is more difficult to get high grades in languages than in other subjects. Surely this should be a matter for exam boards and examiners to address, by bringing grades into line with other subjects. It seems an unnecessary hurdle to put in the way of language learning. Can the Minister say what the Government are doing to address the issue of language GCSEs and A-levels having lower grades than other subjects? This seems a crucial question if we are to raise the attraction of language learning. It is a matter of urgency that we encourage more young people to learn and to enjoy the way others communicate and, in doing so, to understand better our international neighbours. I applaud the work of the British Council and British Academy in their research and I hope that the Government listen to and support their recommendations on modern language teaching.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, deserves our gratitude for initiating this debate on a subject of real importance— much greater importance than can be reflected adequately in a three-minute contribution. Many noble Lords have highlighted the figures that demonstrate that foreign language teaching in our schools and universities is—as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said—in crisis.
The introduction of the EBacc was designed, in part, to promote greater take-up of French and German, but it does not seem to have made an impact. There are a number of contributing factors, most of which have been referred to today by noble Lords. In part, it is caused by complacency, with young people feeling they have no need to learn a foreign language because English appears to be ubiquitous. They need to be made aware that only a quarter of the world’s population speaks English, which means around 5.5 billion people do not. It is also in part due to a lack of suitably qualified teachers of languages for schools and that there are fewer teacher education opportunities, especially in the lesser-taught languages. Another factor is cuts to school funding, resulting in a reduction in school libraries and their resources.
The decline in young people studying languages is less likely to be reversed while the Government persist with their rhetoric, as they have since the referendum, deliberately fostering what the Home Affairs Select Committee described in its report published this week as “a hostile environment” to immigrants. In addition to fostering negative impressions of people who are “not like us”, and hence their languages, such hostility has caused foreign nationals to leave the UK while deterring others from coming here. That policy is particularly demonstrated by the Government’s senseless determination to include overseas students in the immigration figures, when in fact they make a decisive net contribution to this country. There is already a shortage of modern foreign language teachers, yet the Government’s unwelcoming tone ignores the fact that, as has already been stated, currently around one-third of them are non-UK EU nationals. We need more of them to plug the gap, particularly from France, Spain and Germany, but the generally inhospitable atmosphere—perceived or real—since the referendum makes that much more difficult.
The effect is also seriously concerning for the ability of young people to prepare themselves for the fast-changing demands of the economy in the years ahead. At a time when global connections matter more than ever, it is worrying that the UK is facing a languages deficit, because that restricts access by young people to overseas work experience, a vital part of preparation for them to develop a career in international business. Needless to say, the very real threat to the ability of UK students to access the Erasmus+ programme after we leave the EU is an issue that the Government simply must resolve through negotiation. Failure to do so could only lead to a further reduction in the number of undergraduate language courses. This is one of the recommendations in the British Council’s excellent recent report. I would highlight also the call for minimum time requirements for language teaching—I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Storey, that that should start at key stage 1—and for further education and higher education providers to integrate language modules into more of their courses.
I hope the Minister will have had the opportunity in the two months since it was published to study the British Council report in sufficient detail to respond today to its recommendations, because it is a clarion call for action that is absolutely necessary.
My Lords, I am pleased to answer this Question for Short Debate and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for her passionate advocacy of the importance of teaching modern foreign languages. When the national curriculum was first introduced, it was compulsory to teach at least one language to all pupils in key stages 3 and 4. However, it may be that the true value of languages was not widely embraced, as the Government of the day removed this requirement in 2004, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, mentioned. We know that there is much more to be gained from studying a foreign language. It can build cultural and global understanding, and improve the ability to think laterally and creatively. It can also bring benefits from a career perspective: languages are important for those working as translators and in the diplomatic service, but also for those working in petrochemicals, engineers, banking and any profession that can lead to working overseas or with international partners.
I would like to chip in at this point to answer a question raised by my noble friend Lady Hooper. She asked whether civil servant applicants are routinely asked about any foreign language skills. As far as I am aware, the Civil Service does not ask applicants directly about language skills unless it is relevant to the role. That is something for us to mull over.
As the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, said, we know it is a myth to believe that, as English is spoken fluently by many around the world, there is no need for us to converse in the languages of our international business partners. My noble friend Lord Sherbourne put it rather more starkly and succinctly. I was interested also to hear what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby said. He made an important point about the commonality of language to cross religious and country values.
We have never been an insular nation, and, in leaving the European Union, it is important that we adopt an even more global outlook. In support of this concept, the British Council’s Languages for the Future report, published in November 2017, said that we must,
“initiate a bold new policy to improve foreign language learning for a transformed ‘global Britain’”.
I agree, but we are still far from achieving the levels of uptake and proficiency in languages that we need to, and those points have been made today. Only 47.3% of pupils entered a languages GCSE in 2017, and in too many schools only the most academic pupils are encouraged to study languages to GCSE level. Yet taught well, all children can become fluent. Maintained schools must offer languages at key stage 4, although it is not mandatory for pupils to take up that offer. We need taking a GCSE to be an option that all pupils might want to take, in the knowledge that it will be enjoyable, is of value and that quality teaching will enable them to make good progress.
What action are we taking to improve the take-up of languages? I start by saying that I absolutely read the view of noble Lords including the noble Baronesses, Lady Coussins and Lady Janke, and my noble friend Lord Sherborne about the interesting idea of a national language recovery scheme. I will be taking that back to the Department for Education as an idea to look at.
In September 2014, we made it mandatory for maintained primary schools to teach a language to pupils at key stage 2, a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. Maintained secondary schools must also teach a language to pupils at key stage 3 and offer it at key stage 4. An important point about continuity was made by the noble Lord, Lord Storey. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, asked what was being done to encourage students beginning language study as early as key stage 1. Schools are free to teach languages to children at key stage 1 if they choose to, and a wide range of resources are publicly available to support teachers who wish to teach languages to younger children. However, this is not a mandatory requirement, and we have no plans to make it so.
We have introduced the English baccalaureate performance measure, which shows how many pupils entered a GCSE in English, maths, sciences, a language and history or geography. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, asked why the EBacc has not stemmed the downward trend in those studying languages in school and whether the English baccalaureate affects teaching of other creative subjects. Pupils who took GCSEs in 2017 will have made their subject choices in 2014, before the publication of the EBacc consultation. We therefore were not expecting language entries to rise significantly this year. In July 2017, we published the outcome of the EBacc consultation, which sets a clear direction of travel for the EBacc, and we expect schools to respond to it. Entries to language GCSEs are now higher than they were in 2010, but we have always said that the EBacc should be studied as part of a broad and balanced curriculum.
In July, we announced our ambition for 75% of year 10 pupils to be studying the EBacc by 2022. This is an indication of the importance that the Government attach to languages, as these aspirations cannot be met without pupils taking a GCSE in a foreign language. But there is much more to do, and the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, eloquently set out most of the challenges in her speech. Although the proportion of pupils taking the EBacc has risen from 22% in 2010, only 38% of pupils in state-funded schools were entered for GCSEs in all five EBacc subject areas in 2017.
Take-up of languages GCSEs has been the biggest obstacle to achieving high EBacc entry rates. In 2017, of those pupils who entered GCSEs in only four of the five EBacc subject areas, 80% had not been entered for a languages GCSE. These figures serve to highlight the extent of the challenge facing us.
The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, reported that schools are using Progress 8 to avoid MFL and that the EBacc and Progress 8 are in conflict, but we believe that these measures are in fact complementary. It is true that a people does not have to do MFL to get a good Progress 8 score, but the EBacc’s subjects are given emphasis. What is more important than relying on performance measures is to ensure that pupils want to take languages because they see the value and are well taught—a point I made earlier.
We have considered practical steps to help schools. First, Mandarin is cited by Languages for the Future, along with French, German, Spanish and Arabic, as one of the five most important languages for this country’s future. The Mandarin excellence programme, which began in September 2016, will see at least 5,000 young people on track towards fluency in Mandarin Chinese by 2020. Schools on the programme provide four hours’ direct teaching time to pupils, supplemented by another four hours’ study. This has led to pupils making great progress in that language.
Secondly, the recently published social mobility action plan outlined plans to improve access to high-quality modern foreign languages subject teaching. Expert hubs will see schools with a good track record in teaching languages sharing best practice in pedagogy.
Thirdly, there is a need to step up communications by highlighting the importance and value of languages to parents, pupils and teachers alike. Our future communications will highlight the role that languages can and must play in improving pupils’ achievement across subjects. These actions to increase the number of pupils entering languages GCSEs will build a larger pool of potential A-level and degree students.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, asked a question about the Government’s plans to address the causes of the decline in modern languages degree courses in universities—and he asked what we think the cause is. We think that the key factor impacting MFLs in higher education is the decline in the take-up of languages at GCSE level. I have already referred to the positive steps we are taking to address that, but there is some evidence that a substantial number of students continue to develop language and intercultural skills during higher education, evidenced by an upswing in students choosing to study language modules alongside their non-language degree subject. The annual UCML/Association of University Language Centre’s survey of institution-wide language providers in UK higher education institutions suggests that the numbers have more than doubled in a decade.
I thank the Minister for answering some of the questions I provided in advance, but there seems to be an element, if not of complacency, at least of just leaving it at young people being encouraged to take up more languages. It may happen or it may not happen, and at the moment it is not happening. I have heard nothing which suggests that what the Government are doing or planning to do will suddenly create the step change that the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said is necessary in her introduction. As the noble Lord, Lord Storey, said, in countries such as Germany it is compulsory. We really have to grasp the fact that language teaching in this country, certainly in the early years, has to become compulsory or there is no reason to believe that the figures will improve.
I thought that the noble Lord might want to make that point, but that is the next step, is it not? We are not at the stage of wanting to move towards the compulsory angle. I have set out clearly the actions that we are taking, but I did say at the outset that this debate, along with other debates which might be held, will feed into the department. Perhaps new ideas will emerge, particularly those raised by the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, in their speeches.
I would like to move on to teacher supply and retention. We cannot grow this pool without enough high-quality teachers in our schools. That is why we are working to grow a strong pipeline of teachers from within England. But let me be clear: there are more teachers than ever before in our schools—15,500 more than in 2010. The number of teachers returning to the profession has risen by 8% since 2011, and we are encouraged that the number of people starting initial teacher training in 2017 was up on the year before. However, in case I am accused of being complacent, we know absolutely that the recruitment landscape is tough. We are alive to the challenges that the improving economy and the pressures of rising pupil numbers pose. Recruitment in priority subjects like languages has historically been challenging, and that is why we have put a package of measures in place to support the recruitment of trainees and the retention of existing teachers. We continue to offer generous financial incentives, including scholarships and tax-free bursaries, which are typically worth up to £26,000, for trainees in priority subjects, including modern foreign languages. We have also developed a number of measures to encourage more specialists into initial teacher training, including targeted marketing campaigns and providing support to potential applicants across priority subjects.
I should like to move on to the recruitment of teachers from overseas. As we grow the domestic pipeline of teachers, we are exploring international recruitment initiatives in the short term. For example, we have worked with the Spanish Government to expand their visitor teacher programme to England. While most teachers are recruited from this country, schools have been able to recruit staff from overseas to fill posts that cannot be filled from the resident workforce. As we recruit more teachers nationally—this is a point mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins—and work to increase retention, we expect a reduction in the need for these initiatives.
We fully appreciate the valuable contribution that EU nationals make to teaching languages in our schools and universities. In December, the UK and EU negotiating teams issued a joint report on the first phase of the Brexit negotiations. This has helped to provide certainty for those EU nationals, including MFL teachers, who will be living in the UK when we exit the EU. It sets out a fair deal on citizens’ rights that allows UK and EU citizens to get on with their lives broadly as they do now, continuing to enjoy rights such as access to healthcare, benefits and education.
I realise that time is against me and know that a number of other points were raised, notably by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Evans. I shall write to all noble Lords and put a copy of the letter in the Library of the House answering those queries.
To conclude, I have heard certain messages from noble Lords today, and it is clear that we are at a crossroads in the future of languages teaching in our education system. Doing nothing is not an option and the Government are taking positive steps through the initiatives I have outlined. There may be more to do, but I am encouraged by the passion and support your Lordships have shown today for improving the profile of languages within our education system.