Lesser-Taught Languages

– in the House of Commons at 6:23 pm on 24th March 2015.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Wallace.)

Photo of Nick de Bois Nick de Bois Conservative, Enfield North 6:35 pm, 24th March 2015

I wish to express my disappointment at the fact that a number of exam bodies have decided to pull out of teaching GCSE and A-Level for lesser-taught modern languages. It seems that from 2016 or 2017 we will lose a large number of what are referred to as lesser-known languages, and for teaching purposes as modern languages. Those include Arabic, modern Greek, Japanese, Urdu, Bengali, modern Hebrew, Punjabi, Polish, Dutch, Persian, Gujarati and Turkish. In short, my case is that a short-term decision by exam bodies, supposedly made on the grounds of low uptake and/or financial viability, will put at risk the UK’s future trade, diplomatic and cultural relationships with many future economic success stories.

The internationally recognised group known as the Next-11 countries—the House will be grateful that I will not list them all—have been identified as countries set to enjoy rapid and sizable growth. However, with these cuts to exam board qualifications we are set to dismiss, among others, Arabic, Bengali, Turkish and Persian. Indeed, for Britain there will not be the Next-11 countries, but there may be the Next-7. The British Council identified key languages based on economic, cultural and educational factors. Those included Arabic, Turkish, Portuguese and Japanese, yet they too have been identified as of no further interest to exam bodies.

I fear that unfortunately we are not learning the lessons of the past. We have all become familiar with the success of the BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India and China—which were identified decades ago as the growth economies of the future. Yet to all intents and purposes, for some years we in the UK have fared less well than some of our competitor neighbouring EU countries in doing business with the BRIC countries, and I suggest that in part that was because we did not teach and master the languages of the economies that we knew were about to emerge—and emerge they did. Are we now set to repeat those mistakes with the Next-11 countries and the so-called MIST countries—those countries have taken over from the BRICs and are Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey?

Let me use the example of Turkey for illustrative purposes. Turkish is currently taught at GCSE and A-level, but the OCR board’s proposed policy is to cease to teach it as a modern language. The OCR—a not-for-profit organisation—has cited commercial viability as the reason for not proceeding with that exam, arguing that only 1,700 GCSE students and 600 A-level students entered for it. The decision to drop the GCSE and the A-level baffles me, frankly, not least because the number of candidates achieving A-level grades A to E is higher than that for courses the exam bodies are keeping, namely German and Spanish. The decision by the OCR is further complicated—and difficult to understand and challenge—by the fact that on the grounds of commercial sensitivity it will not share the financial information it claims is driving this decision. If it is abandoning the course, I struggle, as one who spent 25 years in business, to understand what could be commercially sensitive.

Perhaps I can make a note of my first two points for the Minister. Will he confirm that the Government are not putting financial pressure on exam bodies, or, indeed, if they are putting pressure on exam bodies? Will he require them to share the financial rationale for that decision with him or his officials?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman is making a very important case. May I just tell him about the Shpresa project, which works in my area among families who came to the UK from Kosovo? Teaching people Albanian is a very important part of what it does. The young people are very keen that there should be a GCSE, as there is not one at the moment. The exam body has told them that raising £100,000 would enable a GCSE to be introduced. So far, they have raised £80,000.

Photo of Nick de Bois Nick de Bois Conservative, Enfield North

I pay tribute to them for their ingenuity and their willingness to try to solve their problem. That points to something I would like to say about the diaspora a little later, but I applaud their entrepreneurial and, shall we say, Conservative instincts to try to find a solution for themselves.

I am quite happy to respect the commercial sensitivity argument about not putting information in the public domain. However, as the Minister will see later, I am anxious that if he were to explore that argument with the OCR it would perhaps either provide comfort or expose as flawed the argument that has been put forward.

On the wider argument, does the Minister agree that the case for learning modern languages is very simple? The world is becoming even smaller. We are seeking to deliver on the Government’s pledge and target to build exports across the globe and to maintain strong trading arrangements with the EU. We will therefore need fluent, well-educated people to build our relationships with Turkey, Poland, Iran, Bangladesh and the other countries I have mentioned. We will need language skills to do business with many of those countries.

Photo of Nia Griffith Nia Griffith Shadow Minister (Wales)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept the exam boards have for a long time cross-subsidised the smaller subject areas? The key thing here is to increase the numbers of people taking the exams. We know very well that it is a huge step forward to go from speaking a language at home to working towards a qualification. We should be aiming to offer more children the opportunity to get a qualification that then makes them able to do the things he describes in the commercial world: to operate as adults, not simply as children who have a language at home.

Photo of Nick de Bois Nick de Bois Conservative, Enfield North

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. Her work on the all-party group on modern languages champions the arguments for why we should engage with diasporas and capitalise on their contribution and their links, through the second and third generations, as well as making the teaching of these languages widely available. We could then turn around the reputation of Britain as a country that is not necessarily interested in other languages to one that champions such skills, so we can return to and explore our roots as a trading nation. She makes the point about the advantages of the diaspora very well.

After five years in this place, I recognise that sometimes people are cynical about taking the word of an MP, so, shocking as that might be, I shall turn to some evidence that I hope the exam bodies will take onboard. In 2013, the British Chambers of Commerce surveyed 4,768 companies, of which 70% responded that their access to greater exports was diminished by a lack of language skills. It is obvious, but it is good to have the evidence. UK Trade & Investment’s 2013 report, “The Costs to the UK of Language Deficiencies as a Barrier to UK Engagement in Exporting”, showed a staggering loss to British business of £48 billion in exports through poor language skills. I do not need a long education in mathematics to work out that this would be an astonishing return on our investment, if we could capture that £48 billion by continuing our investment in modern languages, including many of the lesser modern languages.

In case we need more convincing, I refer the House to the latest report from Professor James Foreman-Peck, of Cardiff business school, which, in 2015, showed convincingly that small and medium-sized enterprise exporters with strong language skills achieved far higher export-to-turnover ratios. That is the holy grail if we are to continue to drive our export business. It is simple. We require exam bodies to invest in the future by keeping and growing modern language courses, not cutting them back. On the point I think Nia Griffith was making,should we not be responding to the alleged concern about entry numbers for GCSE and A-levels, as in the case of Turkish, modern Greek, Polish and Bengali, with an attempt to reach more students by marketing the unique benefits of these courses? There is a vast audience out there waiting to take up the challenge.

Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, the title of which is “Lesser-taught Languages”. In Leicester, these languages are not lesser taught—Gujarati, Punjabi, Bengali and Arabic qualifications are sat by hundreds of students every year. He has hit the nail on the head. If we want to expand trade, rather than getting rid of these qualifications, we should be encouraging schools to offer them, in addition to the madrassahs, temples and community organisations that currently offer them in Leicester.

Photo of Nick de Bois Nick de Bois Conservative, Enfield North

Indeed. With the best of efforts, many of these supplementary educational skills—the hon. Gentleman rightly talks highly of those in his constituency—are not going to deliver the modern language skills we need at A-level and GCSE level to take pupils on to other qualifications. They are complementary. I will talk shortly about what is being done in the community, but on his point about “lesser-taught languages”, it was the term I inherited and felt worthy enough to draw to the attention of the Speaker’s Office. However, he makes very well the point that many people on Twitter have made to me. We still think of them as lesser languages, but in fact they are the languages of the future, economically, culturally and diplomatically.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I have been to Turkey several times in recent years and have been impressed by the scale—7% or 8%—of its economic growth. There is a construction site almost everywhere. I am shocked to hear that an exam board might be thinking of withdrawing a Turkish GCSE qualification. Given that the state could provide these qualifications itself but chooses to allow exam boards to do it, is not the answer for the state to say to exam boards, “If you wish to be an exam board, we will hold you to a higher standard”?

Photo of Nick de Bois Nick de Bois Conservative, Enfield North

My hon. Friend rightly makes a suggestion that I will be reinforcing to the Minister a little later. He is right. The Government’s job, and our job, is to lead. I know from questions I have tabled to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education that they would rightly echo the sentiments he has expressed and which I am sure others in the Chamber hold regarding the value and importance of these qualifications. With a new Parliament, perhaps we can put some oomph—that will be an interesting one for Hansard—into backing up what we aspire to deliver.

As is evident today, there are cross-party calls, led by the all-party group on modern languages, for the political commitment to which my hon. Friend has referred. I think it is also a political commitment to transforming the reputation of the UK as essentially poor linguists. I was blessed in that my father was in the Royal Air Force, so I lived and travelled in many locations overseas. I found it quite hard to learn a modern language overseas. For many years we were in Holland, and as the Dutch told me, “We are all learning English because no one is really keen to learn Dutch.” I am not sure that that is necessarily the case now, but because we were English, we were inherently gifted by the fact that so many people wanted to learn English. That is not the way of the world now—in an ever-changing world and an ever-changing global market. I do not want Britain to be seen as a country that is reluctant to value languages other than English.

The all-party parliamentary group rightly set out other important aims—for example, to ensure that every child achieves a high-quality language qualification by the end of their secondary education. Indeed, that is an ambition that other countries do not need themselves, as many of them are on the way to achieving it. I think it right for exam boards to seek to review their policy, which is in my opinion short-termist and taken in isolation of the needs of business and in isolation of the wider UK skills level training for the future.

As the APPG rightly recognises, the commitment to, and the status of, modern languages are strategically important, yet this move, along with the wider concerns about the take-up of modern languages, make our position more vulnerable now and for the future. As the UK becomes more diverse, with a growing diaspora from many different countries, we should not lose sight of the unique opportunity to build closer cultural, diplomatic and business relationships with countries of origin.

Let me explain. In Enfield North, I have a very mixed population, with strong, well-established second and third generations of Turkish-speaking communities, Greek Cypriot communities, south-east Asian and Polish communities, to name but a few. Indeed, it was interesting to find out from my research that Polish is the second most commonly spoken language in the UK. This is not a reason, in my opinion, to abandon the A-level, but a case to ensure that we encourage the second and third-generation Polish people to become the entrepreneurs, academics and diplomats for the UK and to ensure that we help Poland to do more business with the UK. That is surely the role of modern languages—to secure the qualification, to get it recognised as a qualification that is utterly distinct from what people might learn in the home and to allow people to use languages to progress and develop the careers they need. If I sound as if I know what I am talking about at all, it is down to the discussions I have had on this subject with my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski. It is also worth noting that Poland is currently the UK’s ninth largest export market. That is surely something that we should tap into more.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

Poland is one of our largest and fastest-growing export markets. Whenever I go to Warsaw, the discussions I have in Polish are completely different from those I have when I speak in English. They are so much more open to discussions when people make the effort to learn their language. I very much hope that we can save the Polish A-level, purely from a commercial perspective.

Photo of Nick de Bois Nick de Bois Conservative, Enfield North

I well take my hon. Friend’s point. I am blessed with a French name, but from the presumption that I speak French I recognise the constant disappointment of French-speaking people when I am limited to saying, “I am sorry, but I do not speak very good French”—in French, at least! My hon. Friend is right that the whole tone, mood and understanding can change when we nuance business relationships by using the language of the people we hope to do good business with.

What I said about Poland, I have already said about Turkey, and it is true of Bangladesh—a growing economy in the world, with unique and historic ties. It is set to be a growing economic partner to the UK, but that could be threatened by the decision to close the door on opportunity by not teaching Bengali, which is the 10th most spoken language in the world. That is a pretty big door of opportunity to close. I think that, in the mid to long term, these very same people can be at the forefront of the strengthening of links with their relatives of generations ago, back at home. I think that that can be part of a wider picture, and that what is becoming an increasingly smaller world can be a world in which we send our ambassadors from the United Kingdom, whose origins lie in the diaspora, to be our number one representatives abroad.

Let me, at this point, pay tribute to Londra Gazete, a north London Turkish newspaper that has championed this issue—so much so that, in less than a week, more than 1,500 people had signed up to argue the case for it. It is not as if people are doing nothing now. The diasporas are certainly not sitting around doing nothing; they have their supplementary schools, and they follow the true Conservative principles of personal and family responsibility. Many people from different communities have set up such schools to help second and third-generation people who were born and raised in Britain to rediscover their language of origin. That is what is happening in the Turkish supplementary schools in Enfield. By keeping Turkish as a modern language, we formalise the achievement of pupils in those schools. It is a recorded academic achievement that can take them on to university, and, as I have said, they can become ambassadors and exporters for Britain.

Teaching in the supplementary schools is not a substitute for modern languages GCSE or A-level courses. I do not want our exam bodies to limit the ambition of any diaspora second or third generation. However, as I said at the beginning, this is not just about diasporas. We should not be limiting the ambitions of all Britons who are willing to learn important languages of the future. What may be a lesser modern language now will certainly not be a lesser modern language in the future.

I want to know whether the Minister will meet exam board decision makers—not least those on the OCR—as a matter of urgency, to raise this matter and convey the concerns that have been expressed in the House and in the modern languages community. I should be grateful if he threw his full weight and authority behind repeating the arguments that have been presented here tonight.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith 6:57 pm, 24th March 2015

I congratulate Nick de Bois on securing the debate. I am glad that we have a few more minutes than are normally available for Adjournment debates, so that some of his colleagues can comment on this important issue.

The debate highlights the changes proposed by examination boards in England, but the issue also affects my constituents very directly. Many people in Scotland, in my constituency and elsewhere, want to take exams in the so-called lesser-taught languages but cannot do so, because, even now, the Scottish Qualifications Authority offers a very limited range of subjects. People do take exams in subjects offered by examination boards elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but they have to pay the fees and travel to the approved centres because they cannot take them in Scotland. The only subjects offered by the SQA are Cantonese, French, Gaelic, German, Italian, Mandarin, Spanish and Urdu—and a small element of Polish in what is not a full national course. If exams in lesser-taught languages can no longer be taken in England, people from Scotland—and, presumably, in Wales and Northern Ireland—will not be able to gain these qualifications either.

Polish is my particular concern. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is the second most commonly spoken language in the United Kingdom, and is one of the foreign languages that have the most speakers in the UK. There are a great many Polish speakers in my constituency, which contains the largest number of Polish-born people in Scotland and one of the largest in the UK. Obviously, I have a certain personal interest and experience as well. I have been approached by members of a Polish community and others in Scotland who have been campaigning for the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish authorities to ensure that Polish is included in Scottish national examination courses, both at national 4 and 5 and at a higher level. That campaign is on much the same lines as the one described by the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. It will be a good idea to deal with the moment of interruption before the hon. Gentleman intervenes.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—(Mr Wallace.)

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham 7:00 pm, 24th March 2015

Mark Lazarowicz is a very active member of the all-party group on Poland which I chair, and I hope he agrees with me about the strong representations we have had from the Polish Ambassador Mr Witold Sobków as to how strongly he and the Polish diaspora feel about the importance of the retention of the Polish A-level.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith

The hon. Gentleman is right. As he says, there has been a campaign with strong support from the Polish community throughout the UK. Dziennik Polski has conducted a big campaign to which many of us have given our support.

There is an issue not just for people in Scotland who want to take exams in Polish, or other languages, or for people who are interested in studying Polish. As Nick de Bois pointed out, many languages face being axed as examination subjects, at least in some parts of the UK. In so doing, we are underlining the reputation of the UK as being bad for languages. We all know that is the case anyway and this decision will only make it worse.

This is not just about people who want to learn a language because of family or connection with the diaspora, although that is an extremely important asset that we should be taking advantage of in terms of encouraging economic links to other countries. It is also often important for cultural reasons and cultural cohesion. Anyone in the UK who wants to learn these languages will have a disincentive to do so if there is no examination at the end of the course. As has been said, that will diminish the economic well-being of this country and its ability to reach out to what are growing and important economies. Poland is the ninth largest UK export market, and the UK is the third largest investor in Poland. Turkish has been referred to as well, as has Portuguese, which is important in terms of reaching out to Brazil, one of the biggest economies in the world.

The examination authorities in England are therefore taking a short-sighted approach, which will have a direct effect on my constituents. It is also unfortunate that so far the Scottish examination authorities have not chosen to offer an exam in Polish and perhaps other languages as well. If anyone in the Scottish Government or their supporters in this House is paying attention to this debate, I hope they take that message back home, and I hope the Government here will take the steps highlighted by the hon. Member for Enfield North in trying to ensure this regrettable decision by the exam boards is reversed, so that the immense talent and ability which can be released by encouraging these languages to be learned and studied with a qualification at the end can be maximised for the benefit of the entire UK in the way that has been so amply outlined in this debate.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Conservative, Uxbridge and South Ruislip 7:03 pm, 24th March 2015

I will not detain the House for long. I have a declaration: I am probably the only Member of this House with a degree in Serbo-Croat, and I studied Russian as well at

A-level. I therefore have a strong love of languages that are probably not the most well-known ones, but it is important that they are taught.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Nick de Bois on securing this debate. He is a doughty champion for all his constituents, but on this occasion particularly for those who have these languages and their families. This is very important: it is important for their culture, and it is important for business and many other reasons, but it is also important because when people who might not even have family links learn those languages and then go on business trips and so forth, they learn about the culture of the place. They can then read things and learn a lot more. They are far better equipped to talk to people in those countries and those who are here, and that is incredibly important.

This is also a matter of politeness. Anybody can learn a few words of a language. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North was being modest when he said that he could not speak much French. The ability to speak just a few basic words can open doors. If people are learning these languages, we should encourage them by giving them a qualification. I entirely agree that we should not be cutting the study of these minor languages; we should be encouraging more of them to be taught. Stephen Timms mentioned Albanian. I have become involved in the fight against modern slavery, and it is important that when I go to countries such as Albania and Slovakia I can at least understand what people are saying. We should be encouraging more people to learn these languages.

We have not mentioned intelligence work. We never know when we are suddenly going to need native speakers, for whatever reason. I never thought, when I studied Serbo-Croat, that the events in Yugoslavia were going to happen. It was just a rather nice backwater in the Balkans at the time, but we saw what eventually happened there. These matters are incredibly important.

Madam Deputy Speaker, you and I will shortly be taking our leave of this place. You no longer have the opportunity to speak in debates as I do, but I should like to put on record my thanks to you for all that you have done in the House. I also want to plug my old college, the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, which is now part of University college London. It offers excellent evening courses in all these different languages and, as I am about to have more time on my hands, I might well start to learn some of them.

A few years ago, courses were offered in the House of Commons. Perhaps you participated in them, Madam Deputy Speaker. They consisted of two-hour sessions, and I remember that Tom Brake, who is now the Deputy Leader of the House, was learning Portuguese. I think he was brought up in Portugal. I did Punjabi, which has helped me ever since. I can now say to my Sikh businessmen in Punjabi that I am called John Randall. That opens doors for me everywhere. The fact that I have a beard, and until recently had a shop, has also helped.

Our country cannot afford not to encourage the teaching of these languages. As for the Poles, we should be doing everything we can, because they are an important trading partner. Poles have been in my constituency since the second world war, and they have given so much to this country. It is the least we can do to ensure that their children and grandchildren can learn their language and learn about their country and their culture.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham 7:07 pm, 24th March 2015

When the Prime Minister appointed me as his envoy to the central and eastern European diaspora in the United Kingdom, I was obviously very pleased. I am the first British Member of Parliament ever to have been born in Poland. As I said earlier, when I go to Warsaw and speak to representatives of non-governmental organisations, of commercial operations and of the Government, the conversation is completely different when I speak in Polish. People open up and tell me things that they would not normally tell me, and I am able to engage with them in a completely different way.

As a result, I have now asked a lady in Shrewsbury to help me to improve my Polish, and she comes every Saturday to teach me and my daughter, Alexis. Alexis is eight years old, and she is much better at learning the language than I am, as children often are. Alexis had come to me and said, “Daddy, I’m half Polish and I want to learn the language.” That made my heart melt; I was so proud of her. I very much hope that she will do Polish A-level one day, and that she will be able to speak the language fluently. I know that, whatever walk of life she follows—perhaps she will have a business career—knowing a second language will give her a huge advantage. If we are going to remain in the European Union, it is vital that we engage with our political counterparts in their own language.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Nick de Bois. He and I share a passion for British exports; we both come from an exports background. I spent 14 years exporting British goods around the world before I became a Member of Parliament. If we look at the world map, we see that we are exporting most to English-speaking countries but that, surprisingly, there is a huge dearth—a void—of British commercial interests in many parts of the world simply because we do not understand the language. The Prime Minister has set a target of £1 trillion of exports by 2020, which some say it is unachievable. I believe it can be achieved, but we have to help the small and medium-sized enterprises, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North referred. One in five SMEs is exporting and if we can get that to one in four, we will completely wipe out our trade balance deficit. We are not going to get back to substantial economic prosperity in this country unless our SMEs are exporting to countries to which hitherto we have not exported. These languages are of huge importance in that, so I implore the Minister there. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North and I am very grateful for what he has done. I very much look forward to hearing from the Minister about the interventions he is going to make to ensure that these vital language courses stay.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

May I just ask you, Mr Bacon, to allow enough time for the Minister to reply? This debate will end at 7.30 pm.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk 7:10 pm, 24th March 2015

I have an eager eye on the clock and I will abide by what you have said, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wish to make a brief contribution.

Some 10 days ago—two weeks ago—in my capacity as co-chair of the all-party group on Iran, I helped host five Members of the Iranian Parliament here in Westminster for most of a week. When we were not in Westminster, one of the most interesting trips we did was to Cambridge, where we met the professor of Persian studies, some young British students who were studying Persian, some young members of the diaspora and some people who had come here from Iran to study at masters and at PhD level. On the point that my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski made, when we look at the statistics on this country’s exports to Iran, we find that, sadly, for a variety of reasons we are all too familiar with, they have been going down. Interestingly, that has been while United States’ exports in areas where the US has a competitive advantage, such as agriculture and pharmaceuticals, have been increasing substantially.

There will come a time when our relations with Iran, including our commercial relations, are able to flourish and prosper in the way that many of us would like to see. When that time comes, we have to be ready. We need to be preparing for that now. We need to make it more normal to learn “lesser-taught languages” as they are termed in this debate. The best part of that description is “taught”, because they are not lesser in any other sense. I am looking at my right hon. Friend Sir John Randall and I recall a friend of mine who is now at The Economist teaching me a phrase in Serbo-Croat many years ago which turned out to mean, “Why don’t you speak Serbo-Croat?” I have yet to find a useful use for it.

The truth of the matter, however, is that the single most human part of the encounter during the Iranians’ visit was when I recited a poem in Farsi that I had taken the trouble to learn. That opened a whole set of windows that had hitherto been closed in the way we dealt with each other. The Iranians went home, reporting back that they had had a very successful visit. I only hope we can do more business in the future and improve the relations between our countries, but the ability to communicate with each other is of the essence.

Let me make one point about the comments made by Mark Lazarowicz. At one point in his speech he used the phrase “examination authorities”. We all know what he means by that, but these people are not authorities; they are contractors. They have been given the chance by the state to offer qualifications, or they have qualifications that are widely recognised as if they have the force of the backing of the state, but the state does not have to leave it there. We are in an environment where we have been hearing the phrase “more for less” from many different domains for several years, and that is what we ought to expect of the examination authorities. Instead of saying, “We don’t have enough people to offer a Polish qualification, an Iranian qualification, a Serbo-Croat qualification or a Portuguese qualification”, we should be saying, “These are the economies of the future, which are growing and with which we will be trading. Let’s find a way to make sure, by the use of imagination and wit, that we can do more for less. Either you come with us on this journey, provide more for less and show that you can do it, or we will find someone else who can.”

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 7:14 pm, 24th March 2015

I congratulate my hon. Friend Nick de Bois on securing this debate, and pay tribute to him for his support of the study of foreign languages and for the way in which he consistently and energetically fights for the interests of his constituents in Enfield North.

Learning a foreign language is both a great pleasure and an excellent preparation for life in a modern country such as Britain, which has an outward looking and globalised economy. I also pay tribute to the all-party group on modern languages for the work it does in highlighting the importance of studying a modern foreign language in our modern economy. I also welcome the literally unique contributions from my right hon. Friend Sir John Randall—the only Member with a degree in Serbo-Croat—and my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski, the only Member who was born in Poland. My hon. Friend Mr Bacon also made a powerful short speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North is right to highlight the importance of languages for future economic growth. A report by the CBI published in 2014 found that 65% of businesses say they value foreign language skills, most importantly for building relations with overseas customers and overseas suppliers.

The Government’s programme of education reform has been the most far-reaching for a generation. We have restored rigour by introducing a new knowledge-based curriculum, which draws from the curriculums of the highest-performing jurisdictions around the world. We have raised the bar by reforming GCSEs and A-levels so that young people study genuinely demanding content, which provides a solid basis for further study and employment. Raising the status of foreign languages—both to increase take-up and improve attainment—has been central to this programme of reform.

In 2010, the study of foreign languages in English schools was in a precarious state. The removal of languages from the key stage 4 national curriculum in 2004 by the previous Labour Government led to a 36 percentage point decline in the number of pupils studying a modern foreign language at GCSE. In 2000, 79% of pupils studied a foreign language at GCSE. By 2010, that had fallen to 43%.

This Government have taken decisive action to address that decline. We agreed with the APPG on modern languages when, in its manifesto for languages, it talked about the need for a national recovery programme. We listened to the evidence on the importance of starting to learn a language early. Following the introduction of the new national curriculum in September last year, it is now compulsory for maintained primary schools to teach a language to all pupils between the ages of seven and 11. The new curriculum is also more demanding, with higher expectations for pupils’ speaking, writing, translation and grammar.

We recognised that the new curriculum would present challenges for some schools. We are therefore providing £1.8 million to fund nine projects across the country to support teaching of modern foreign languages. Many schools have responded well, and are going even further than the national curriculum requires. The language trends survey for 2014-15, published last week, found that 49% of primary schools are already teaching a language to five to seven-year-olds, even though it is not required by statute.

The new English baccalaureate performance measure has also been a hugely successful reform. The EBacc represents the strong academic core of subjects that all pupils should study, including a foreign language. As a result, the number of pupils in England taking at least one modern foreign language at GCSE has increased by 20% since 2010, and 29% since 2012.

We are also reforming GCSEs and A-levels so that they are more demanding and provide students with necessary knowledge for further study and employment. In 2014, we published reformed subject content requirements for GCSE, AS and A-level qualifications in modern foreign languages. The new GCSE will be more demanding, and most exam questions in modern languages will be asked in the target foreign language.

At A-level, the content has been strengthened, with new requirements for students to read foreign language literary works and develop a wide command of complex spoken and written language. In the past, some of the lesser-taught language GCSEs included no assessment of speaking or listening. Ofqual has decided that those elements, both of which are crucial to linguistic fluency, must be assessed in the reformed qualifications.

The new content for modern foreign languages specifies the knowledge expected of pupils taking the qualification in terms that apply to all languages. It is then for awarding organisations—the exam boards—to determine which languages to offer at GCSE, AS and A-level. We have made it clear to the exam boards that we want a broad range of subjects available to study. French, German and Spanish will always be important, and they do attract significant numbers of candidates: there are 150,000 entries for French GCSE, 57,000 for German and 71,000 for Spanish. Those subjects were therefore the first to be reformed and the new GCSEs will be in place for first teaching in September 2016, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North that young people should have the opportunity to study other, less familiar languages if we are to compete in the global economy.

British firms will increasingly demand staff who are fluent in languages such as Mandarin, Arabic, Polish and Turkish as they seek new markets and opportunities. We have therefore allowed the awarding organisations further time to develop new qualifications in additional languages for first teaching in 2017. They are free to develop qualifications in any language, provided that their specifications meet the subject content requirements set by the Department for Education and assessment arrangements set by Ofqual. Clearly, there is work involved in developing new GCSEs and A-levels that meet the new demands, and financial costs associated with the reform, but that should not prevent awarding organisations from offering reformed qualifications in a range of languages if they choose.

As my hon. Friend highlights, some exam boards have announced their intention to discontinue their qualifications in some languages. Those decisions appear to have been driven more by short-term commercial interests than by a robust analysis of the language skills our economy will clearly require in the future. He has raised specific concerns about AQA’s plan to discontinue Polish A-level and OCR’s plan to discontinue Turkish at both GCSE and A-level. I understand that 18,000 residents in the London Borough of Enfield speak Turkish as their first language, and my hon. Friend is right to recognise the extraordinary contribution the community makes to the local area and to London's economy. I agree with him that it is important that Turkish continues to be taught so that more young people can enjoy Turkish literature and culture, and so that British firms are well placed to make the most of Turkey's rapid economic growth. He and other hon. Friends mentioned Turkey’s growth, which I can tell them was about 26% between 2010 and 2013.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

I am listening with great interest, but I hope my hon. Friend recognises the difference between, on the one hand, the unsurprising commercial considerations of commercial contractors making decisions in the short term, and on the other hand, the interests of this country, which are longer term. I am slightly uncomfortable with the language he is using about the choice being for the examining boards to make—that it is for them to decide what they offer. Surely it is for us as a country and as the House of Commons, and for Her Majesty’s Government, to decide what we want to do, and then to make sure that arrangements are in place—whether they are commercial or otherwise—to achieve the goals that we want to achieve?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

There are genuine commercial factors that the awarding bodies have to take into account. We could compensate or pay awarding bodies to produce qualifications. I will deal with that point shortly.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith

I look forward to the Minister coming to that point, and I hope he will show what the Government are going to do to encourage or even require the examining boards to meet the demand and the requirement for other languages that has been so clearly identified in this debate. We want not just good words, but action to make that happen.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

I will come to that in a moment. First, I wanted to point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North and to other hon. Members that OCR plans to continue offering an IGCSE in first language Turkish, which I hope will be of interest to many of my hon. Friend’s constituents who already speak Turkish.

Photo of Nick de Bois Nick de Bois Conservative, Enfield North

I want to put it on record that that has been examined by many people, but it is nowhere near the standard that we require for A-level and it will not achieve the objective, for example, of helping someone get into a university with that qualification.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

I will take that point to the awarding organisations. Although the IGCSE will not count in school performance tables, the qualification is recognised by further and higher education as a demonstration of a student’s proficiency in the language. Clearly, though, the availability of the IGCSE is not a full substitute for a GCSE in Turkish as a foreign language, for those who are learning it as a second language rather than as a first language.

I have listened to the powerful case made by my hon. Friend and other hon. Members this evening on behalf of their constituents and others who recognise the importance of languages to our economy. I should point out, for the sake of balance in this debate, that the Turkish GCSE attracted only 1,403 entries last year, and for the Turkish A-level there were only 354 entries. Indeed, the entry figures have been consistently low for a number of years.

These relatively small numbers create some genuine difficulties for awarding organisations. In addition to diseconomies of scale, they may struggle to recruit sufficient staff to mark the exam and find it more difficult to set grade boundaries, given the statistical variability which is more likely in smaller cohorts. Nevertheless, I believe that these problems may well have solutions. Exam boards manage to recruit markers for the current version of the GCSE and they manage to set grade boundaries effectively.

My hon. Friend is correct. It is not the Government who are applying pressure, financial or otherwise, to reduce the number of foreign language GCSEs; quite the contrary. Having listened carefully to the arguments made by him and others, both during the debate and outside the Chamber, I will raise his concerns and those of other hon. Members with the chief executives of the awarding organisations, including OCR and AQA, and I will invite them to reconsider their current position—I will do that tomorrow—and to subordinate what I believe to be a commercial calculation to the far more significant long-term economic and cultural considerations for this country. In doing so, I will also question them closely about the financial rationale for their decisions.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and others for raising this important issue, and I pay tribute to his firm support for the key place of languages in our long-term plan for education and the economy.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.