EUROFILE. Robert Evans says excuses have run out for Britain's poor language performance. I spoke to the cashier in the Brussels bank in French. He replied to me in perfect English and spoke to a colleague in Flemish. He then had a short conversation in German with another customer and on questioning admitted that he was also fluent in Spanish.
This young man may not have been typical, but it is commonplace to find that a great many Europeans speak at least two languages and, at the very minimum, understand a good deal more than the average Briton. It is easy to argue that this is due to their having borders with other states where a knowledge of neighbouring languages is essential and that in any case, Brussels is a bilingual city. To my mind, this underplays the situation and merely serves to provide an excuse for the complacency of most English speakers.
From my 16 years' experience of schools in England and now an albeit short period as a member of the European Parliament, it is evident that teaching and learning languages is simply not a British priority. Consequently, we are slipping further and further behind the rest of the European Union.
At the October session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, I made my first parliamentary speech in the debate on the Socrates programme. This is a new European Union initiative, building on the existing programmes and providing, amongst other measures, additional funding for language teaching. Socrates also encourages student and teacher mobility, including grants for teachers' periods of language immersion abroad and additional support for projects involving migrants and gypsy families.
In total, Parliament voted for 181 million ECU (about Pounds 141 million) to be spent on Socrates next year, in addition to 142m ECU for the Leonardo programme and 22m ECU for Youth for Europe.
Although education was mentioned for the first time in European legislation in the Treaty of Maastricht, never before has funding been targeted specifically at nursery, primary and secondary schools. It provides an opportunity, particularly for languages, that we must not let pass.
Experience in bilingual schools where teaching is in Welsh has shown that these children perform at least as well as their single-language peers. With sensible use of European funding and with the flexibility in the national curriculum provided by Sir Ron Dearing, there is scope for our schools to take this a stage further. I believe that children cannot start to learn languages (and for languages don't just read French) soon enough. Surveys show that parental support is there, the teachers' talents are waiting to be tapped, and no one has said that English children are less capable than those in Belgium, Sweden or Wales.
The aim should not be merely to provide multilingual bank staff, but to allow our young people to grow up in Europe and the world as social equals, able to communicate with their international peers.
With the budget for 1995 now approved by the European Parliament, it is up to all of us to put European words into practice. Despite the new Secretary of State's background in education, we cannot rely on the British Government to do this, for they seem happy to ignore European educational legislation when it suits them. For example, how many schools have noticed, since May 1988, any Government policies to "make young people aware of the advantages of Europe".
It is the responsibility of those in education to make this project successful. We can then argue for increased funding for the future.
Robert Evans was elected as the Member of the European Parliament for London North West in June and is the newly appointed European Parliamentary Labour Party spokesperson on education. He was head of Crane Junior School in Hounslow from 1990 to 1994.