House of Lords debate Modern Languages in schools

News summary

Extracts from the House of Lords debate what action they will take to reverse the decline in the number of secondary school pupils studying a foreign language (24 January 2005).

Monday, 24 January 2005. 2.30pm

The full debate is available on the United Kingdom Parliament website

Baroness Howe of Idlicote asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they will take to reverse the decline in the number of secondary school pupils studying a foreign language.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, by the end of the decade we are committed to offering all children aged seven to 11 the opportunity to study a language. Our investment in the primary workforce and school resources will make this a reality. The key stage 3 national strategy modern foreign languages programme will build on primary learning. These measures, along with the availability of alternative qualifications and vocational options, supported by guidance from schools, will encourage more pupils to make positive choices to study languages at 14.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that, even in the few months since learning a foreign language ceased to be obligatory for 14 year-olds, there has been a sharp decline in take-up, with two-thirds of state schools now offering it only as a voluntary subject and three-fifths of children having opted out? Does the Minister agree with the finding of the National Centre for Languages that it is schools with the poorest exam results or those in deprived areas which are most likely to follow this trend? Is not the whole effect becoming increasingly elitist and wholly out of line with the previous Secretary of State's ambition for the UK to provide a global education system, preparing children for life in a global economy?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I am aware, of course, of the National Centre for Languages' research report in 2004. I think it presents a slightly more mixed picture, with great respect, than the one described by the noble Baroness. For example, recent research shows that 44 per cent of primary schools are now offering some form of language learning, 35 per cent of which are doing so in mainstream class time, compared with 20 per cent of schools offering some language learning in 2001. Although it would be too elaborate a reply to give from the Dispatch Box, I can assure the noble Baroness that the intake at the other end into higher education is showing real stability.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, according to the most recently available figures, 380 secondary teachers of modern foreign languages recruited to the service in 1997 had left the service by 2003. What are the Government doing to retain these teachers? Can the Minister tell the House precisely what is being done in the primary sector, because there certainly does not seem to have been a shift to teaching modern foreign languages in primary schools? Where it is done, it is often done as an after-school activity.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, perhaps I may take the questions in the opposite order and start with primary and go through to secondary. Since launching the languages strategy in 2002, 1,200 new primary language teachers have been trained and £10 million in addition has been committed to supporting the early language learning initiatives. There is, it has to be acknowledged, still a problem with capacity. We shall not make the breakthrough, of course, until the capacity is all there and operative. As to secondary education, the fundamental question lies in encouraging 14 year-olds to take a real interest and to wish to learn languages. A huge amount of the work going in is to try to make the subject more exciting, more relevant and, where possible, more vocationally based.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, does my noble friend acknowledge that the admirable ambition of the Government to help children learn languages at a young age is somewhat compromised by the fact that only 3 per cent of primary schools at the moment offer a weekly foreign language lesson of greater than 20 minutes duration?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, the point I made about the building of capacity is fundamental. A number of research reports have indicated that the earlier you can teach children a language the more likely they are to pick it up and follow it through. But, of course, that does not mean anything unless you have a fundamental change at that level. I have been referring to what can best be described as an incremental change. I make no greater claim for it than that it is changing incrementally, but for the better.

Lord Quirk: My Lords, our state secondary schools include more than 200 which are busily specialising in foreign languages. Do not the Government think that it would be a good idea to issue a strategy paper which indicated their own aspirations with respect to particular languages, given that Mandarin is the most populous language in the world, German the most populous language in the EU and that we also have needs in niche areas such as the Middle and Near East?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, let me express the real sense of pleasure that the Government take in the specialist language schools and in the fact that senior pupils in those schools often go as ambassadors to other local schools to encourage young people in those schools to take up serious study of languages. Looking at the admissions to higher education institutions, it is interesting to note that in a number of areas about which your Lordships' House has been particularly concerned in the recent past-certainly including Chinese and Japanese studies and other Asian languages-we are making small but net gains in admissions in all of them. We are just about holding our own in the mainstream European languages after a period of decline. Obviously we need to do better in those.

Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: My Lords-

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords-

Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I apologise if I have done the wrong thing. Does the Minister agree that in persuading secondary school pupils that languages matter, as he said is very important, teachers must help them to understand that to understand your own country properly you need to understand another country very well, which you cannot do without knowing its language? That is a very important point to make to pupils.

The other point is-

Noble Lords: Question!

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the belief that English is a perfectly good language throughout Europe, and that everyone will be able to speak it, is simply not the case? If you go to eastern Europe, the main second languages are French or German, not English. People need to understand that, to travel, they need to be able to speak another language.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I have no disagreement with either of the points the noble Baroness makes.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, will the noble Lord say something about the teaching of Spanish, which is all too low in British schools?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I am happy to tell the noble Lord that one of the subjects in which there is a real and visible increase in uptake, at all levels of examination in schools and in universities, is Spanish.

Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: My Lords-

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, can the noble Lord assure me, as somebody who is actively engaged in encouraging students at school to study foreign languages, that the Government are doing their utmost to inform young people of the career-enhancing opportunities afforded them if they learn another language, be they doctors, nurses, teachers or engineers? Everybody is looking for people who can speak a second language.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I entirely agree. The Careers Service plainly has an important responsibility. The 2004 report of the National Centre for Languages, which I mentioned earlier, deals with this vital and associated matter. It makes the point that there is a perception that languages are not a vocational subject. As a consequence, they are often timetabled against the very subjects with which they should be combined in order to encourage and enthuse people, such as tourism, business studies and leisure industry studies. A good deal of change is needed at school and elsewhere to make sure that the vocational value of languages is fully grasped and that we make the best use of the talents that we have.