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Plurilingual and Intercultural Education

Volume 824: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they intend to take in response to the recommendations of the Council of Europe of 2 February (CM/Rec(2022)1) on the importance of promoting plurilingual and intercultural education to support democratic culture.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and I remind the House of my language interests, as set out in the register.

My Lords, languages education is an important element in developing a democratic and socially just society. We are incredibly fortunate to have English as our lingua franca, but we also value familiarity with other languages and cultures. Highlighting the interconnectedness of languages and increasing the profile of community languages is part of our new language support offer from 2023. Revised GCSE content will make languages more accessible and improve uptake. New measures will increase the number of language teachers.

My Lords, I am pleased, of course, that as one of the 47 members of the Council of Europe, the UK signed up to this recommendation and I am encouraged by the positive words from the Minister. But the Government also decided to withdraw the UK’s membership of the council’s European Centre for Modern Languages. This means that our teachers no longer have access to a wide range of valuable professional development opportunities, which, at a time of MFL teacher shortage and under-recruitment, seems perverse. Will the Minister agree to reconsider UK membership of the ECML as one of the specific measures we could take to back up our in-principle support for this recommendation?

My understanding is that the decision to withdraw from the council’s European Centre for Modern Languages was taken over a decade ago and we have no plans to rejoin at this time. We currently fund teacher continuing professional development via the National Centre for Excellence for Language Pedagogy. To encourage recruitment for the academic year 2023-24, we have increased the language bursary to £25,000 and we are also offering a prestigious scholarship worth £27,000 for French, German and Spanish trainees.

My Lords, will the Minister give us some idea of the Government’s assessment of the cost of not having sufficient people understanding other modern languages—or are the Government happy to have our heads eternally bowed to Google Translate?

I am not aware of whether those costings have been done, but if they have, I am more than happy to share them with the House.

My Lords, I congratulate the Prime Minister on attending in person the first meeting of the European Political Community, in Prague, which discussed security and energy. Will the Minister join me in encouraging the Prime Minister—whoever he or she may be, and from whichever party— to attend the Council of Europe summit to be held in Reykjavik in May next year?

My Lords, given that English is the most spoken language in the world and that Spanish, as a first language, is the second most spoken language, will my noble friend reassure me that priority will always be given to the teaching of Spanish?

I thank my noble friend for her question. I am sure she will be pleased, as I am, to note that Spanish is now the second most popular modern foreign language at GCSE with almost 110,000 entries in the academic year 2020-21.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the BBC World Service is a major promoter of democratic culture and the English language worldwide? Does she think that, at a time when courageous protesters in Iran, especially women, are seeking reform and change in that country—over 1 million of whom listen to BBC radio on the World Service—this is a good time to be cutting and removing those services for people who are so desperate to see the promotion of democracy?

Like all Members of the House, I have the deepest respect for the courage of very young women in Iran, in particular, and the process they have led. I am sure my colleagues at the Foreign Office are listening to the noble Lord’s comments.

My Lords, a knowledge of foreign languages opens doors, particularly for business. What encouragement, in the form of in-service training or financial help, is given to the private sector to work with government in order to ensure that we encourage UK plc to open doors through the use of language?

Obviously, the Government support continuing professional development for people in work—this includes our commitment to a lifelong loan entitlement—so that we as an economy and as workers within that economy can stay agile to the requirements, whether languages or more broadly.

My Lords, focusing on the “intercultural education” aspect of this Question, can the Minister say what assessment has been made so far of the loss of value represented by the lack of reciprocity in the Turing scheme?

I do not have a formal assessment of the impact of the lack of reciprocity, but I am very pleased to share with the House that around 38,000 young people will be funded to take part in the Turing scheme this year, going to 150 locations, and that 52% of those young people come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The noble Earl understands better than I do that you cannot make a direct comparison with the Erasmus scheme, but I remind the House that in its last year 17,000 young people took part.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the study of a foreign language provides unique opportunities to young people and to our country, given the growing isolation that has followed Brexit? Is she concerned that the lowest take-up of languages is in the poorest communities? What action will the Government take to ensure that young people in these communities receive their proper entitlement to such important educational opportunities and are not disfranchised from the international identity by recent Brexit developments?

The Government are concerned about the level of uptake of modern foreign languages in schools generally, and specifically in the communities to which the noble Baroness refers. That is why we announced in our schools White Paper that we are setting up a network of language hubs, introducing new continual professional development courses for language teachers at both primary and secondary level, and have undertaken a review of the modern foreign languages GCSE curriculum and syllabus, which we think will improve uptake.

My Lords, I remind noble Lords of my entries in the register. The Minister mentioned some facts and figures to do with the Turing scheme. Can she assure us that all students who spend a year abroad as part of their studies at university do not have to pay any extra and that their universities do not have to subsidise them in any way as a result of the change from Erasmus to the Turing scheme?

Does my noble friend agree that the reciprocal to this Question is equally applicable regarding the teaching of English to speakers of other languages? I declare an interest as the non-remunerated life president of Trinity College London.

My Lords, languages unlock so many opportunities for young people, and a weight of research suggests that they positively affect all other subjects a child is studying. In light of this, we on these Benches propose after-school clubs for every child, which schools can choose to use—and often do use—for fun, accessible language provision. Will the Government consider adopting a similar measure, especially given the raging cost of living crisis?

As I mentioned, the Government’s focus is really on trying to improve the uptake of languages, particularly at GCSE level. That is why we have piloted the new curriculum. We are optimistic that it will be much more engaging for young people. That is in no way to diminish the value of after-school clubs, but the Government’s focus is on the former.