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Schools: Modern Languages

Volume 797: debated on Tuesday 9 April 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in ensuring that more pupils study modern languages in primary and secondary schools.

My Lords, the take-up of modern foreign languages at GCSE is too low. While the percentage of those studying an MFL GCSE has increased from 40% in 2010 to 46% last year, more needs to be done. To this end we have, among a number of initiatives, created nine MFL hubs and have worked closely with Ofsted on its proposed new inspection framework. This has increased focus on the EBacc curriculum, which includes languages.

I share my noble friend’s concern. The latest survey I have seen shows that half the schools in England and Wales have dropped A-level courses in modern languages. Part of the problem is that our universities are not turning out enough graduates who can teach modern languages, and that is because universities themselves are dropping degree courses in modern languages. What are we doing about that?

My noble friend is right; however, noble Lords will remember that we in this House passed the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. We have a market-driven higher education system where student choices drive demand. The role of government is to create the right conditions for providers to respond to economic and strategic priorities. To this end, universities need to do more to explain the longitudinal earnings outcomes of language degrees. For example, in a study that my department released in June of last year, language students at the median point, five years after graduation, earned more than those studying law, physical sciences or biological sciences. That sort of awareness needs to get out to potential undergraduates.

My Lords, with Ofqual figures showing a drop of 7.3% in students taking foreign languages at GCSE and A-level, I invite the Minister to join me in congratulating our European partners, whose Governments are directly funding the teaching of Italian, German, French and Spanish in our primary schools. Will he tell the House what plans the Government have to encourage that continued economically viable support and commitment post Brexit, so that we can compete more easily in the global economy? Does he appreciate the irony of our seeking to leave Europe while our European partners are funding school posts at a time when we are cutting them?

My Lords, I think the irony has to lie with the noble Lord opposite, because in 2004 the Labour Government removed the compulsory requirement for modern foreign languages at GCSE. It collapsed from 70% participation to 40% in 2010 and we have clawed it back to 46%. That is not enough, I absolutely accept that, and I give full commendation to the Italian Government who are helping with Italian in this country. The Goethe Institute is also helping with German and we have announced our own scheme, which has been running for three years with the Spanish Government, whereby we bring over young Spanish undergraduates to work in our schools.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that an estimated 35% of our MFL teachers are non-UK EU nationals, and that even if every single one of our students now doing languages at university went into teaching, the shortage of MFL teachers would still not be met? Will he therefore ensure that the shortage occupations list is amended when the new skills-based immigration rules are introduced, so that the list includes teachers of French, German and Spanish as well as Mandarin teachers, who are the only ones on that list at the moment?

The noble Baroness makes a very good point, and I will certainly take that recommendation back to my department and the Home Office. The noble Baroness mentioned the Mandarin programme, which we began in September 2016. It started with 23 schools; we are now up to 64.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the survey carried out by the British Council last year, which found that a third of our state schools were not teaching whole classes of modern languages, particularly in year nine? The majority of these schools were academies. Is it not true that academies do not have to follow the national curriculum? Will he consider ensuring that academies and free schools have to teach modern languages as well?

The noble Lord makes a valid point. He is correct in saying that academies are not obliged to follow the national curriculum, but we insist on a broad and balanced curriculum. The Ofsted changes to their framework will put much more emphasis on the EBacc, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, which includes modern foreign languages.

My Lords, I am not a fuddy-duddy, but, while I appreciate and support more modern foreign languages being taught, does my noble friend not agree that the standard of English, particularly its grammar, in our schools and universities is now at its lowest level for a long time? Would he not agree therefore that we perhaps also ought to encourage the study of the classical languages, such as Latin, which helps all students understand English grammar better?

My noble friend is right; I do not think he is being a fuddy-duddy at all. We have seen a degradation in grammar; I am a martinet in the department when I receive poorly written subs—I send them straight back. I commend to the House the small charity Classics for All, which is doing as my noble friend suggested—taking Latin into areas of deprivation. I have a few references to it here which might hearten him:

“What I hadn’t expected when I started teaching Latin classes here was the students’ sheer joy of learning Latin for its intrinsic beauty and the excitement of etymology! Students actually love declining and conjugating. They see a beauty in the language of ancient poets and warriors”.

Even a child, Mohammed, said:

“I just love it. It’s just fun”.

I did not have the same experience when I was learning Latin.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that large numbers of children in our schools came into them as non-English speakers. They have learned to speak English, are in fact bilingual or sometimes trilingual, and are generally regarded within the education system as a problem rather than as the resource they actually represent. Can he say in what way the Government are encouraging schools to recognise children who have other languages already available and to use the resource they represent creatively?

I reassure the noble Baroness that multilingual children are not seen as a problem from my experience in the number of schools I took over—indeed, one of the last free schools I created in Norwich had over 19 languages. It brings enormous diversity and opens the minds of children from different backgrounds. I do not think it is a problem. We have just created a small pilot with Cardiff University to trial MFL undergraduate mentoring in secondary schools to see whether they can be effective in the teaching of modern foreign languages.