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Brave Estelle takes on French army

stelle Morris, I am delighted to learn, has faced up to what I call"the Eric James question". Lord James was by turns a secondary head and a university vice-chancellor, the kind of person who regularly performed at conferences and official committees.

Whenever someone proposed a new subject for the curriculum - Jcitizenship, philosophy or whatever - he would hear them out and then ask quietly:"And what subject would you take out?" He rarely got a straight answer.

Echoing James, Morris's Green Paper on 14-19 education says: "It will not be possible to offer young people more customised, and to them more relevant, programmes from 14... if we do not create sufficient space in the curriculum."

Morris has dared to create that space partly by making modern languages optional. This proposal will do well to survive the consultative phase: Morris will be accused of insularity, backward-looking imperial arrogance and indifference to globalisation. But I see no point in forcing adolescents to labour over a subject for which many of them can see no use. They usually get a choice of French or German. There are some 300 languages spoken in London alone, but the city has fewer native French or German speakers than speakers of Chinese, Bengali or Spanish to name just a few.

Even if they frequently travel abroad, young people will find that, outside France, most foreigners want to speak English to them. The rest of the world is flooded with Hollywood films and other manifestations of American (and, therefore, English language) culture. A Turk and a Dane will use English to communicate. This explains why foreigners are so much better at English than we are at their languages, and why their teenagers can be persuaded to learn it.

Here, if the French or the Germans open their mouths on a TV news programme, an English voiceover will drown them out. This may make us a deplorably ignorant and arrogant people but, even if we have misgivings about the global supremacy of English, we may be confident Americans don't.

I agree that, in an ideal world, every 19-year-old would be proficient in at least one foreign language. They would also understand quantum physics, the Bauhaus design school and the Leavisite approach to literature. But English education has been dominated by people who aspire to create modern versions of Renaissance Man for too long.

Teenagers are easily bored; they get impatient and rebellious when they find a subject dull and lacking an obvious point.

They can sometimes be bought off with the assurance that the subject will get them a job. But, as careers teachers must get tired of explaining, a foreign language qualifies you for hardly anything; it is merely a useful supplementary skill, and is best acquired either through a crash course when it is needed or through living among native speakers.

If it is necessary to create the habit of learning a language, start in primary school when children's minds and tempers are more pliable and more accommodating than they are at 14 or 15.

I applaud Morris for her courage in defying the academic snobs and recognising that many young people would take more readily to studying media, film, sport or tourism than they would a foreign languages, without any reduction in the challenge to their intellects.

Amazingly, we have an Education Secretary who shows an understanding of what 85 per cent of children at comprehensives really need. Anything to do with her once being a teacher?

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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