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2.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith): May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) on gaining the opportunity to discuss this important issue and, in his customary way, delivering his views entertainingly and convincingly? I, too, have taken up the language challenge as part of the European year of languages and have made a small start on learning Spanish. When I took my husband to Barcelona a couple of weeks ago, I made good use of that fieldwork opportunity.

I share my hon. Friend's view that modern foreign languages are key to our social and economic success and that they enable and encourage an understanding of other cultures and of our responsibilities as global citizens. My hon. Friend rightly identified the key issues, which are how to promote language learning in primary and secondary schools; how to ensure that we promote further study of languages; and the importance of lifelong language learning and links to business. I shall cover those areas in my response and talk about how we intend to take forward the Government's work in relation to the Nuffield report.

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I know that teachers are enthusiastic about languages at primary level. They tell me that they are concerned to convey to young minds the importance of absorbing the culture of other nations. By doing that, children come to see that understanding a language means more than just learning words and phrases. We do not have a statutory curriculum for modern foreign languages at key stage 2, but languages in primary schools are popular with children and teachers as a voluntary option. That is so, not just outside the curriculum, but inside it, using classroom time. The Government are keen to support and enhance activities in primary schools on the practical and can-do basis that my hon. Gentleman urged.

On that basis, the Department for Education and Employment has supported the early language learning initiative and guidance for teachers at key stage 2 between seven and 11, and it has supported a new scheme of work produced by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority for primary French and the development of further materials for primary German and Spanish. The QCA's materials have been very successful in the short time that they have been available and feedback from teachers has been positive and supportive. Five thousand copies of the scheme of work alone have been distributed since their introduction.

The early learning language project is a unique project within a subject area and a unique collaboration with the centre for information on language teaching and research. It started in September 1999 and has 18 pilots, covering about 150 schools. It has already enabled the development of an early years languages framework, which builds on the schemes of work and other curriculum support and guidance. It will develop high-quality curriculum materials for teachers; indeed, it has already done so. It will develop and disseminate models of good practice; establish a network of practitioners using information and communication technology; and review and co-ordinate training for teachers of modern foreign languages in primary schools.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is pleased that, last week, I announced a further £200,000 to extend the early learning good practice project, which is managed by the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research. We want to build on that and to develop beacon primary schools and teacher training initiatives with partners in France, Germany and Spain. We will also carry out an audit of language resources available to primary schools, and promote their use through the national grid for learning and other appropriate media.

We need to make sure that the language skills acquired in primary schools are not lost when pupils transfer to secondary schools. We must ensure that primary and secondary schools work together. That is why our key stage 3 strategy, covering all the foundation subjects and aimed at raising standards in the early years of secondary education, will play a crucial role in improving the teaching of modern foreign languages. This year, we will pilot a new programme of training and support for teachers in foundation subjects, including modern foreign languages. That support will be available in more than 200 schools. We will aim to extend that nationally from 2002-03.

As my hon. Friend said, all secondary schools have a role to play, but there is a special role, which he outlined, for specialist language colleges, both in links with primary schools and in raising standards in secondary schools. The

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Government want the links between language colleges and primary schools to be strengthened. We have made that a key part of our response to the Nuffield inquiry. We want to strengthen links such as those made by Sir Bernard Lovell school, Gloucestershire, which has established a network of 30 primary schools in England, France and Italy.

Specialist language colleges are leading the way in performance improvements in language learning. The first language colleges became operational in 1995. Under the Government, their number has grown to 108 across 81 local education authorities. The colleges are tasked with raising standards of teaching and learning in modern foreign languages, fostering an international ethos and cultural awareness throughout the school, encouraging the active participation of business community sponsors in school life and--this is important to help us raise standards--encouraging the dissemination of good practice and the sharing of resources through closer contacts between language colleges, other schools and the wider community.

The results for GCSEs in language colleges have been particularly impressive, with the average percentage of pupils who gained at least 5 A to C grades showing an increase of 3 per cent. in one year alone. That is greater than the average improvement in specialist schools as a whole and in all schools nationally.

My hon. Friend knows that our recent Green Paper, entitled "Schools--Building on Success", proposes that we expand the number of specialist schools to 1,000 by 2003 and to 1,500 by 2006. We expect the number of language colleges to increase as part of the general growth in the number of specialist schools. We believe that there is a sound basis on which to raise standards in secondary education and build important links with primary schools. We are keen to create links between many more primary and secondary schools, to allow primary schools to develop their teaching of modern foreign languages.

My hon. Friend rightly mentioned teacher recruitment. He will be pleased to hear that, as we announced this week, applications for post-graduate teacher training places are up 7 per cent. over last year for modern foreign languages--an encouraging sign and a result of the strong action taken by the Government to attract people into teaching. My hon. Friend may be interested to know that, from September, we will be running a pilot to offer teacher training places in modern foreign languages for primary specialists as well.

My hon. Friend expressed concern about A-level entries. The new AS qualification introduced in September 2000 should encourage the take-up of modern foreign languages post-16. Students also have the opportunity to take language units as part of vocational A-levels and GNVQs. We are evaluating whether the reforms have encouraged more young people to continue to study a modern foreign language at advanced level.

As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, last year, the Nuffield report on modern foreign languages was produced, and the Government responded to it in January. However, our response did not end then. To underpin it, we are currently working on the national strategy for languages. That strategy will be inclusive and will explore especially how we can build on the good work in primary schools that I described; explore new ways of bringing languages into the classroom; and build on the language

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elements of our key stage 3 strategy. We shall also develop a strategy that makes greater use of adult vocational learning to promote languages and that engages business, persuading it of the importance of languages within the work force.

Mr. MacShane: My hon. Friend knows that the distinguished permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Employment, Sir Michael Bishard, has announced his retirement. Will she pass a message to the Secretary of State that Sir Michael's replacement should be someone who has some overseas experience and speaks at least one foreign language fluently? I do not ask my hon. Friend to respond, just to take the message.

Jacqui Smith: I will, of course, be a diligent messenger.

We need to develop a strategy for lifelong learning and for business involvement in language learning. We need to persuade business of the importance of languages in the work force, perhaps by increasing work placements abroad and by the appointment of regional language champions to work with senior business people and with educators to promote language learning to adults at work.

We need to maximise the use of information technology in language learning. We must use the European year of languages, of which my hon. Friend is

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a vocal supporter, to raise the profile and importance of languages while putting in place mechanisms to guarantee sustainability. We must ensure that our achievements during the European year of languages can be developed.

I want to make sure that we involve key stakeholders in the shaping of the national strategy for modern foreign languages. As my hon. Friend made clear, the issue cannot be dealt with by a single Department or even by Government alone. There will be many views on what we should do and we will take on board as many of them as possible when formulating the strategy.

Last week, I announced our plans to establish a national steering group, which I will chair, to oversee the development and implementation of our plans. I expect the group to include members drawn from the organisations that I mentioned and from other Departments, which have a key stake in improving our national capability in modern foreign languages.

It is clear from today's debate that there is considerable support behind the work that we are doing to offer quality resources and support--especially in those all-important early years--to people who want to learn a language. We must continue to place a high profile on language learning--from the cradle to the grave.

That is the real language challenge that faces us nationally. I assure my hon. Friend that we accept the challenge.

Question put and agreed to.

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