Oral Answers to Questions — Primary Schools (Language Tuition)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17 February 1998.

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Photo of Rachel Squire Rachel Squire Labour, Dunfermline West 12:00, 17 February 1998

What proportion of primary schools in Scotland currently offer foreign language tuition. [28074]

Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office

There are at present teachers qualified to teach modern languages in 74 per cent, of Scottish primary schools.

Photo of Rachel Squire Rachel Squire Labour, Dunfermline West

Does the Minister agree that, in spite of that, the take-up of foreign languages by children and young people in Scotland has been very disappointing; that the development of fluency in two or more languages opens up tremendous opportunities, especially in employment; and that it seems that the best way to start is at primary school? What further action do the Government hope to take, especially in this year, when we hold the European presidency, to encourage greater foreign. language development in Scotland?

Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office

If I wanted to be complacent, I could simply say that we are already far ahead of the United Kingdom as a whole in that respect, and that we are continuing to expand the successful and praiseworthy modern languages in primary schools scheme. However, I entirely share my hon. Friend's analysis. I think that our proficiency in languages in Scotland—and, perhaps, in the rest of the United Kingdom as well—is a disgrace. For all the reasons that she states, there is an enormous amount to be done to improve our language competence. I believe that we could do much more through the education system, including, for instance, immersion in modern languages in the primary years. We should also ensure that within the curriculum there is no disadvantage to pupils who opt for modern languages. That is vital.

Photo of Mrs Ray Michie Mrs Ray Michie Liberal Democrat, Argyll and Bute

If the threat to primary schools in the highlands and islands area continues, there could soon be few primary schools left to teach another language, or anything else. Is the Minister aware that in Argyll and Bute 10 primary schools have now been earmarked for closure, in addition to the four that have already closed? Those schools certainly will not be able to teach another language. How does he view that development, in the light of the funding that he recently announced for the Argyll and Bute education authority?

Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office

As the hon. Lady is aware, I know Argyll and Bute reasonably well. I also know the local authority, and I think that it would maintain that its proposals were education led rather than finance led. Of course, the decisions are matters for the authority's judgment. It inherited an enormous number of small primary schools and, for reasons that the hon. Lady and I both regret, there is continued population movement away from some areas. Judgments then have to be made by the education authorities. I have nothing but empathy with small primary schools, but there remain judgments of balance on educational and financial grounds for education authorities to make.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Labour, Falkirk East

The Minister, I am sure, will accept that to advance something like primary education teaching in languages requires co-operation. He will no doubt have noted in The Times Educational Supplement of last week the concerns expressed by local authorities at the number of directives coming from his Department, which has been worrying them. He will recall that I handed him three sheets totalling 55 directives sent out by his Department to education authorities since May last year, and I hear that they are actually speeding up in January and February. Will he give the House an assurance that he will go back to his promise of co-operation with local education authorities to build the education they require, rather than allowing his civil servants to bombard them with directives, which cuts across their own plans in education?

Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office

I assure my hon. Friend that the approach is one of partnership and consensus, as will be reflected later this week when the action group on standards in Scottish schools, which I chair, meets people from all the branches of education represented on it, so as to take forward important reforms. When I took my job, one of the first things I said was that there was unnecessary paperwork and bureaucracy going into schools and taking up the time of teaching staff and head teachers. If I could be shown examples, I would end that. I must practise what I preach, and if my hon. Friend can show me unnecessary letters that have gone into schools, I shall ensure that the flow is reduced.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Conservative, Vale of York

Will the Minister agree to extend the Lingua programme to primary schools both in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom, and can he inform the House what the cost to the British taxpayer would be?

Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office

On costs, I would be pleased to write to the hon. Lady. In principle I support the extension of language programmes in schools. That is the practical approach adopted in Scotland and I am always looking for ways of furthering it, and of taking advantage of European programmes that encourage it.