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Foreign crisis

Modern foreign language study in Wales is facing a crisis. Exam entries have been declining so much that only 40 per cent of Year 11 pupils sat at least one foreign language GCSE last year. Only a quarter of schools can claim that more than 50 per cent of their Year 10 pupils are studying for a foreign language GCSE, and in some schools the proportion has dropped to below 10 per cent.

Few of Wales's 22 local education authorities have a take-up figure of more than 50 per cent in key stage 4. Fewer than half of schools offer a second foreign language, and fewer than one in 25 pupils studies a second language in KS4.

The average time devoted to foreign languages in KS3 is two hours a week, and some schools provide less. This limits pupils' progress.

Adding to the time spent on languages by introducing them in primary school is unrealistic, given that all primaries are already teaching Welsh, either as a first or as a second language.

The factors contributing to pupils' negative attitudes to languages are similar to those in England. They include:

* pupils' feel that they are making slower progress than in other subjects, because tey do not understand linguistic structures;

* some pupils feeling that, as they already study Welsh in KS4, an extra language is too much;

* the difficulties experienced by teachers in coping with mixed-ability groups (though some do so remarkably well).

Some headteachers are also reluctant to promote foreign language learning, especially if they feel that pupils will get better GCSE results in other subjects.

The situation has concerned the National Assembly so much that it recently launched a National Languages Strategy. Currently out to consultation, this suggests:

* promoting language learning at all levels and in all sectors;

* building on non-Welsh-speaking pupils' experience of learning Welsh in the primary school;

* providing more advisory support for schools.

The task ahead will not be easy but as the Languages in Action Project (see right) has shown, concerted efforts by schools, linked to outside support, can reverse the decline in the take-up of languages.

Steffan James is modern foreign languages HMI for Estyn. He will speak on the National Languages Strategy at 10am on Friday, May 25.

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