Lesser-Taught Languages

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:14 pm on 24th March 2015.

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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.