HC Deb 14 June 1965 vol 714 cc201-12

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. O'Malley.]

2.11 a.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

I think we would all pay lip-service to the commonplace that we British should have more understanding of the Oriental and the Arab world. The only question at issue is how we translate benevolent intent into practical actions, and, in particular, whether the schools have a role o play. One avenue in the direction of understanding is in the learning of language. Another is in the expansion of Oriental and Arab studies in faculties of history, geography, economics, law and social sciences. This morning I shall confine my discussion merely to the subject of living languages.

My argument is that a serious attempt ought to be made to introduce Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Hindi into selected schools. I state the case, first, as a child-centred argument, and secondly from the point of view of the educational system. From the point of view of the child, is not a pupil's imitative linguistic ability at its height well before puberty? Is this not especially true where an alien alphabet is involved? For what it is worth, I found it very much easier to begin elementary Greek at the age of 12 than to embark on Russian at 16½.

I would state a crude generalisation that can neither be proved nor disproved, but which I believe to be pertinent, simply that a boy, and particularly a girl, will settle down more readily to mastering a strange alphabet and routine grammar between the ages of 11 and 13, during the age of wonder and enthusiasms, than later on; or, at least, until the early 20s when powerful motivations such as promotion in industry or the Foreign Office could induce a crash effort. The fact is that there is a not uncommon type of talented and often rather horrid boy or girl who simply enjoys manipulating Greek verse. If Greek, why not Arabic or Chinese?

From the point of view of the system, in my view elementary teaching of languages to undergraduates during their degree course is inappropriate for universities. For this I have informed support in Edinburgh and Oxford, London and Cambridge. As I understand it, the present position in Oxford is typical of other universities. Since students aim at a good degree, naturally they opt for subjects they have done at school. Since few potential students have any grounding in Oriental languages or Arabic, the faculties do not attract students. Since the faculties do not attract students, the colleges are reluctant to appoint fellows, who will necessarily share little of the burden of college teaching. Thus departments of Oriental studies are hardly growth points which will turn out school teachers. I need not fill in or complete this vicious circle. The useful question to ask is "How does one break into it?"

Two possibilities present themselves. Either one has pre-college intensive language courses, which I rule out as impracticable in a generation that does not do National Service, or one introduces Oriental languages and Arabic into school, on a reasonably wide scale. Those of us who were at the Isle of Man know the Secretary of State's predilection in favour of numbered points for action, and so I offer him a programme for action.

In the first place, negotiations should take place with some large local authorities, with a view to selecting some major comprehensive or grammar schools, interested in starting a department of either Chinese, Japanese, or Arabic. Much would depend on personal circumstances. For example, at the High School of Glasgow it happens that the headmaster has a first class honours degree in Japanese.

It is crucial to success that there should be three or four teachers on the subject in the same school to guarantee continuity, otherwise a subject might be started with great enthusiasm and then a single teacher might leave for another school, get promotion to a headmastership, retire, or die, leaving pupils in the lurch, their time wasted. The Secretary of State may care to consider this point in the light of experience gained in Abingdon, Berkshire. Pupils whose parents wished them to study Oriental languages could be drawn from a catchment area significantly larger than usual for the school.

My second point is that a register should be made of qualified staff currently available in the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Education and Science might care to approach Ministers of Education abroad to ask them to send a group of 40 teachers of English to British schools for two years to teach their own language. I have reason to believe from conversations with Saluddin Hidayat, the Egyptian Minister of Science, at his Ministry in Cairo that the United Arab Republic would welcome an invitation to send teachers to this country. In exchange we might send training college students or young teachers to Egypt to teach English and learn Arabic. This might well be discussed with the U.A.R. political delegation which is coming to London. From various conversations with individuals, I do not think that the Japanese Government would be unreceptive, since they would have no difficulty of any kind in selecting personnel from among their own teachers of English in Japan.

Negotiations with the Chinese might be tricky, and I warned my right hon. Friend a fortnight ago so that he could consult the Foreign Secretary should he wish to do so. Has anything come of it? My comment would simply be that money spent on one Phantom aircraft would pay the journeys and expenses of a great number of teachers of Chinese in British schools.

As for Hindi, I was told recently by two sets of Indian politicians, whom I entertained through the auspices of the C.O.I., that in principle they are sure that the Indian Government would be happy to participate in a scheme, sending a limited number of teachers of English to British schools. As most of the candidates would be fluently bilingual, this would seem to be utterly realistic.

Eventually—and this is my third point—one would hope that teachers' training colleges might be fed from schools with some pupils who had the basis of Oriental languages. As an emergency measure, half-a-dozen training colleges might be selected and persuaded to offer a course in Chinese language. Some men and women who could not cope with the degree in Oriental studies might become most effective teachers of language to pupils. Special attention should be given to the ways in which language laboratories and branching teaching machines can be programmed to the best effect.

Finally, I must raise the point which in discussion has most worried some of my colleagues. It runs like this: "How are you going to select which eleven-year-olds study Chinese? Are not you determining the direction of a young mind far too early? How can a child know whether he or she will be interested in China?". It seems to me that this kind of reasoning could be equally well applied to French or German. There can be no kind of obligation on a youngster, selected by parent and headmaster for such a course, to pursue Oriental studies in the supposed pursuit of the national interest, but a proportion would use their training. Some would take a related university degree. Others would gain from the discipline of mind which would not be inferior to Latin or Greek.

Generally, the really important thing at school is whether the subject is taught well or not by effective teachers. Heads of primary schools would make recommendations. They have a fairly good instinct as to which pupils are likely to be successful in tackling strange alphabets. Equally, in a large catchment area, there are some parents who would for a variety of reasons—cultural, political or eccentric—like their sons and daughters to learn Chinese. Once a school course was established and a respectable examination system set up and co-ordinated to university entrance, filling the course would be the least of the difficulties.

Perhaps I may introduce an autobiographical note. Early in 1964 I was invited by President Nasser privately one evening to his house on the outskirts of Cairo. One of the points he made, quietly without any offensive innuendo, was this: "In imperialist times many of your countrymen could speak excellent Arabic. Do you not think that if you are to have what you call a genuine two-way exchange betwen nations on terms of dignity some of your generation ought to take the trouble to study Arabic?"

I am sure that my hon. Friend is fully sensitive to the fact that any serious—and it would have to be serious—attempt to show our respect for other cultures by doing our best to introduce their languages into our schools on a meaningful scale would be a worth-while contribution to easing difficult relationships, and I suspect that this is equally true of China as it is of the U.A.R.

Of Russian and Spanish, which I included the title of the debate, I have said nothing for reasons of time. However, my hon. Friend may care to report progress.

12.22 a.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. R. E. Prentice)

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend on raising such an important and interesting subject and thanking him for giving me ample notice of the main points he intended to raise. This has enabled them to be studied by the Department and I assure him that they have been studied very carefully.

Frankly, at the outset, I am not able to accept fully all the suggestions he made in detail on the method of increasing the teaching of oriental languages but I can go part of the way in his objectives and tell him that certainly his thinking is in line with ours in the need, first of all, to broaden the choice of languages available in the schools and in education generally and, secondly, to encourage greater study of languages at all levels.

As a country we have to get away from our past assumption that other people have to need and learn our language and to take more seriously our duty to learn theirs. We must think in these terms on a much broader canvass than in the past. The reasons for that are really land-based, as my hon. Friend said. There are very important political reasons, and, in the long run, there are important commercial reasons as well, why in future we should have more people able to cope with foreign languages on a broader base.

My hon. Friend concentrated his remarks on the question of Oriental languages as such. The subject he gave notice of included the teaching of Russian and Spanish and at the end of his speech he invited me to say a little about the progress made in that direction. I will do so briefly.

Here, I think, I can satisfy him. In the last few years there has been very ample expansion indeed. He will be aware that the Committee under Mr. Noel Annan reported in 1962 recommending a number of steps to be taken to expand the teaching of Russian in our schools. This has been followed up. The teaching force in Russian in schools has been increased in two ways—first, by greater numbers of graduates from the relevant departments of universities going into the teaching of Russian, and, secondly, by the organisation of special one-year courses for teachers in the teaching of Russian, and some 150 teachers so far have gone through these courses. I take this opportunity to say that we are hoping that the local authorities will make greater use of these courses and will be prepared to second teachers to take them on a larger scale.

Perhaps a most useful index of the extent to which Russian studies have increased is given by the number of pupils offering Russian in the GCE. In 1959 there were only 230 pupils who offered Russion at O-level, whereas in 1963 that number had gone up to 1,896. At A-level the figures had gone up from 79 in 1959 to 375 in 1963. That is a large increase in a period of only four years and one which we certainly hope is going to expand a great deal in future.

Spanish has been taught widely in our schools much earlier than Russian. Therefore the expansion that has taken place is not quite as spectacular in such a short time. Nevertheless there has been a considerable expansion over a period of nine years, from 1952 to 1963. In 1952 there were 1,572 passes at O-level, which had increased by 1963 to 5,091. At A-level it rose from 391 in 1952 to 1,190 in 1963.

Other things also are happening which I should mention. My hon. Friend in the early part of his remarks talked very briefly about the need for increasing Oriental studies in general as distinct from language studies, and here a great deal is being done at the moment and has been done in the last four years with increasing research and the study of all aspects of Oriental countries, particularly in the universities.

Following the report of a subcommittee of the U.G.C. under the chairmanship of Sir William Hayter in 1961, there has been the financing of a number of new posts in the universities. Some 70 to 80 new posts have been created in studies connected with Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe following the recommendations of the sub-committee. Just over £400,000 has been made available by the U.G.C. for work in this connection and a number of special centres have been set up. For example, in the University of Leeds a Centre for Chinese Studies has been established, in the University of Sheffield a Centre for Japanese Studies. I think my hon. Friend will recognise that, apart from the direct value of this, it will probably have the effect of stimulating the study of these languages incidentally to some of the other studies involved.

The other field which is relevant is that of further education where there has been in recent years a considerable expansion of foreign language teaching at a number of different levels, varying from degree courses to very short courses designed for export managers and salesmen who want a crash course in a particular language. Here it is most encouraging that there has been recently a development in the direction of Oriental languages, among others. I got out some facts on this, and I see that in 13 technical colleges dotted about the country Chinese is being studied at various levels in the ways I have suggested. Six technical colleges are offering Arabic, three are offering Urdu, one is offering Hindi, one Japanese and another Malay. I just took the Oriental languages as an example, and one can go through the various languages and find a number of technical colleges offering them.

The central theme of my hon. Friend's speech was the need to expand Oriental language study in schools. We welcome the steps that have been taken in a few schools hitherto and we want other schools, where they can, to take more steps. My hon. Friend has mentioned Abingdon, where there had been a teacher in these subjects who has now left this school. He will be glad to know that a Formosan student at Oxford is in line for starting work at that school next term to continue the work which has been done in this study.

My hon. Friend suggested that we should, as a Department, take a number of steps to organise in selected schools the teaching of Chinese, Japanese and the other languages which he mentioned. Here, we come up against three particular difficulties, and I want to be frank about them. First, there are the legitimate doubts which exist, and to which my hon. Friend referred, about the advisability of choosing for a child at the age of 11 or 12 a course of study in an Oriental language.

My hon. Friend said that he saw no difference between making that choice for a child and choosing that he should learn, say, French or German. There is a difference, and certainly a number of educationists would argue that there is a difference, in the sense that the study of European languages has traditionally been a part of education in this country. Clearly, we have links in terms of vocabulary and literature with countries which are within easy reach of us, we are ourselves part of a European civilisation and, therefore, the study of these languages has formed, and is likely to and should form, a common part of our education in a way which Oriental languages are unlikely to do for some time.

To say that is not to discourage the idea that the teaching of Oriental languages should spread. It is merely to suggest that the choice of an Oriental language is a choice which should consciously be made by an older pupil, say, at sixth-form level or, in some cases, later rather than a choice which is made for a boy or girl at the age of 11 or 12. Although my hon. Friend might not agree with that judgment—it is something which can be argued to and fro—there is a substantial body of opinion which would take that view. That makes it more difficult for the Government as such to impose upon the education system a rather different approach to these matters.

The second point that is tied up with this are the practical difficulties of introducing into the schools the wider teaching of Oriental languages in the way suggested. To a large extent the educational system is self-perpetuating in the sense that where there are trained teachers who themselves were educated in a tradition, and where the materials and methods are available and tried, it is easier to go on doing what we have done before. This is a dangerous argument, because it could lead to our being in a rut and never getting out of it. I merely say that it makes it more difficult in practice to impose upon the system a change along these lines and that one has to examine carefully the steps which are suggested, and particularly the difficulty which exists in teaching.

My hon. Friend recognised the need to have more than one teacher in a school trained in a particular language. That is where the difficulty occurs. If one were to arrange exchange schemes with other countries, it would be difficult to arrange them in a way that provided within a school which taught the subject a team of teachers with an element of continuity. With other languages, especially European languages, we have exchange schemes by which exchange teachers supplement the teaching that is done by the teachers in the schools and add to the team in the school on a longer term. It would certainly be difficult to set up a Chinese or Japanese department in a secondary school based upon a flow of exchange teachers in this way.

Therefore, we have to think to a large extent in terms of our own people graduating from our universities and teaching these subjects or, possibly, in some cases, using the services of nationals of the countries concerned who have made their homes in this country and who are willing and able to teach. In this way progress could be made, and we would want to see it made.

This leads me to the third point, which perhaps is a larger one, and that is, that traditionally the Minister of Education, the Secretary of State now, does not take initiatives of this kind in changing the curriculum pattern in schools. This is a delicate matter in which the relationship between the schools, the local education authorities and the Department has evolved over a period, with a partnership between them, and there would, quite rightly, be resentment if an edict were to go forth from our Department in the terms my hon. Friend has suggested.

The channel for discussing this and making progress along the lines he wants is the newly formed Schools Council, or, to give it its full title, the Schools Council for Curriculum and Examinations, which was established last October and has begun its work in a flourishing way, examining all questions of the curriculum and related matters. On the Schools Council teachers and teachers' representatives have a majority, and on it are represented local education authorities, universities, and other interested parties. For it our Department provides a secretariat, and funds for research purposes, and so on, for developments of this kind. That Council has already established a Modern Languages Committee, and I understand it is likely in the near future to establish a subcommittee on Oriental and African languages. I think it is in that framework that development of the curriculum in this direction ought to be studied. Of course, the points put by my hon. Friend in this debate will be available to the members of that Committee.

In this way, of course, the problems will be studied in relation to the curriculum as a whole. I do not mean any disrespect to my hon. Friend when I say that often we are urged by people who are enthusiastic about one subject or another to give it more attention in the curriculum, which raises the problem of what to take out, to balance the curriculum as a whole in the schools. It is therefore of particular importance for the Schools Council, being representative of the educational world itself, to look at this matter and study it from all angles and sift the problems out and to make its own recommendations to the schools.

There has also been established, as recently as last December, the Committee on Research and Development in Modern Languages. That Committee is under the chairmanship of Dr. Farrer-Brown, with a number of distinguished educationists on it, and it will be studying this problem; of course, the problem of Oriental languages as a whole is within its ambit, and will, I hope, be studied by the Committee along with the problems of teaching the languages more traditionally taught in our curriculum. That Committee's work will also be very relevant to the problems raised by my hon. Friend.

I hope my hon. Friend does not think I have been too negative about this. I have deliberately stressed to some extent the difficulties we would have in adopting literally the points he made in his speech, but the Government are with him in wanting to see a development of the study of Oriental languages, and an accelerating development and expansion of what has already taken place in teaching Russian, and in teaching Spanish, which were also subjects of his speech. It is simply a question of how this can best be approached. I think that is a matter which will clearly have to be debated in the Schools Council and the educational world for some time, so that informed opinion can circulate and a consensus of opinion emerge. I think that my hon. Friend tonight in raising the subject has made a valuable contribution to that discussion.

Mr. Dalyell

In many ways that is a very fair answer the Minister has given—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Samuel Storey)

The hon. Member may speak again only with the leave of the House.

Mr. Dalyell

I want to ask my hon. Friend just one thing, an awkward ques- tion. Where are the potential graduates to come from? Is the Minister prepared to have a pre-college intensive language course? Because if the universities take the attitude that it is not their business to teach Oriental languages, who is going to do it?

Mr. Prentice

Yes. I think my hon. Friend is repeating the point he made about there being a vicious circle between the universities and the schools. This is precisely the type of subject one wants to see discussed and studied by the Modern Languages Committee—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening and the debate having continued for half-an-hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nineteen minutes to One o'clock.