Bonjour tristesse

The proposed removal ofa foreignlanguage asa compulsory subject at 14-16 will not help students compete in the job market, argues Bob Powell

So, a modern foreign language is no longer to be compulsory for 14 to 16-year-olds. Many language teachers will probably breathe a sigh of relief as a result of this proposal, one of the more radical in the Green Paper, 14-19: Extending Opportunities, Raising Standards, published last month.

They may not accept the blame for the demise of compulsory languages - indeed they should not. The statement: "We have not in the past taught languages as successfully as many other countries" (paragraph 3.20) will do little for their morale. Examination entry statistics at A-level are a crude tool for measuring the success of learning in the 14-16 age range.

Throughout the past decade, language teachers worked hard to motivate all their pupils. They were caught both ways: finding strategies for re-awakening interest among already disenchanted pupils and maintaining the enthusiasm of others in key stage 4 for whom the GCSE course meant so much marking time.

For those of us who argued strongly during the 1980s that languages needed to shrug off their elitist image by becoming a normal part of a broad and balanced national curriculum, this recent shift in education policy is a disappointment. Much now hangs on the interpretation, in practice, of the new buzz phrase, "statutory entitlement of access", that is put forward in the paper.

This, it is argued, will require schools to make languages available to any pupil wishing to study them. Fine, but it will be a matter of local decision how that entitlement is provided. It will be difficult for schools, already facing serious problems of teacher supply in languages and with the new demands of citizenship and work-related study, to do much more than pay lip-service to this grand aspiration. I seriously doubt, therefore, whether the "new flexible 14-16 curriculum" which emerges over the next few years will increase the range of languages on offer, let alone "make it easier for those who so wish to study more than one language" (paragraph 3.22.).

The Green Paper begins with the recognition that to be prosperous "the economy will depend heavily on the creativity and skills of its people". It presents new vocational qualifications and promotes the notion of "parity of esteem" between all qualifications at GCSE.

However, the fundamental problem for this country is that we have never really considered that a foreign language should be an essential ingredient of a general and vocational education. In this, our thinking is very distant from that of our European partners - partners who are, in reality, competitors in the global market. These same competitors may well speak English better than we speak their language (having started much earlier, of course) but they are also learning other languages, equipping themselves much more purposefully for international business.

Some undergraduates in the UK are at last beginning to understand the importance of foreign languages, even in a world dominated by English. They realise that a language will give them added value in future employment and greater flexibility. They enrol on university language centre courses keen to improve their communicative skills, picking up from where they left off at school - regrettably all too early for many of them.

In these centres, the newly enthused linguists discover that they are sharing classes with lots of overseas students who are seizing the opportunity to enhance their employability back home by gaining credit for additional language learning. The secondary education of most international students has given them the edge by enabling them to experience an uninterrupted programme of language study from an early age, thereby providing them with the tools for learning further languages.

There is some consolation for linguists in the Green Paper: the promise of a concerted effort to enable all primary pupils to study a language.

There are, of course, enormous problems of language teacher supply to be resolved in both the secondary and primary sectors. In addition, research has shown that there will need to be a similar reduction of statutory requirements on primary schools as is now proposed for secondary schools before primary heads will accept such a development without protest.

There is some irony, therefore, in this latest curriculum reform, with languages once again a dilemma for policy-makers and practitioners alike.

Dr Bob Powell is director of the Language Centre, University of Warwick. He was president of the Association for Language Learning 1991-1994

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you