Exam boards are to begin a joint investigation into the decline in modern foreign language A-level entries and why it appears particularly difficult to achieve a top grade in the subjects.
Their research will look at whether the two issues are linked and at other potential reasons for the continuing fall in language take-up.
The announcement was made today as it emerged that French, German and Spanish have seen a collective 17.8 per cent drop in A-level entries since 2008.
Andrew Hall, chief executive of the AQA board said: “When you compare that to the other facilitating subjects [needed for entry to the most selective universities] I think there is a real issue. In languages there is a problem.”
Earlier this month Ofqual the exams regulator announced its own inquiry into why “relatively few A* grades are awarded in modern foreign languages when compared with other subjects with a high proportion of A grades”.
Statistics published by the exam boards this morning show that 38.2 per cent of entries in the big three foreign languages achieved A or A* grades, a higher proportion than the 30.7 per cent for physics, chemistry and science.
But on A* grades alone, the three sciences come out on top with 8.4 per cent achieving an A* compared to 6.9 per cent in the languages. There was a similar pattern last year.
Brian Lightman, Association of School College Leaders general secretary, and a former German teacher, said he was “very pleased” that the inquiries were taking place and hoped that the work began quickly.
“We have been saying for many years that there is an issue with grading of modern language exams,” he said. “Students know that it is harder to get a high grade in languages and undoubtedly this has factored to a certain extent into their choice of subjects.
Exam board research will also consider wider issues including students’ motivation for taking languages, the type of student that does enter in terms of prior background and achievement, and teacher supply.
Mark Dawe, chief executive of the OCR board, said: “We are only one part of this. Some of the motivational factors and choices are things that are outside the exam process.
“We would be contributing to that wider debate but at least we can provide some evidence, rather than anecdote, about what is going on.”
This year entries for French and German fell by 9.9 per cent and 11.1 per cent respectively although Spanish bucked the trend with a 4.1 per cent increase.
Confederation of British Industry deputy director-general, Neil Bentley, said: “It’s very worrying to see an accelerating drop-off in French and German entries. Employers still rank both above any other modern language. Despite the economic hardship in the EU, it remains theUK’s biggest export market.
“We’re seeing the knock-on effect of scrapping compulsory languages at GCSE. Making it statutory at primary school is a good move but it will be years before we really reap the rewards.”
Mr Lightman added: “The ability to speak more than one language makes British graduates more competitive and businesses need to send out this message loud and clear. Students are savvy to what employers want … they will respond. We have already seen this happening in sciences, maths and engineering.”