Record numbers of teenagers celebrated high-grade GCSEs this week. But the results revealed a fresh crisis for languages as the number taking French, German or Spanish dropped by more than 64,000.
The Government's decision to make languages optional last year has resulted in the most dramatic falls in entries for French and German in more than a decade. Fewer than half of pupils now take French.
Exam boards said that the figures threatened the future supply of language teachers and put fresh pressure on ministers to deliver their promise of giving every primary pupil the chance to learn a language by 2010.
The proportion of papers in all subjects awarded A* to C rose from 59.2 to 61.2 per cent. But this improvement was overshadowed by fears that languages are now becoming the preserve of a high-achieving minority.
For the first time since the early 1990s, entries for French dropped below 300,000. This year, they slumped by 14 per cent from 318,095 to 272,140, a fall of almost 46,000. German entries fell 14 per cent to 105,288, while the numbers taking Spanish were also down, by 2.5 per cent to 62,456.
French and German entries had climbed during the 1990s after the Tory government said all pupils must study a language to the age of 16.
The figures follow sharp falls in the numbers sitting French and German A-levels, prompting a warning that languages will become an "endangered species" in state schools within 10 years.
Writing in The TES this week, Geoff Lucas, general secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents top private schools, says league tables should be changed to force schools to reveal how many pupils get a C or better in a language. The Joint Council for Qualifications, which issued the results, said the decline in languages was "to be regretted".
The proportion of entries awarded C or better improved more in French and German than in any other subject, suggesting that those dropping the subjects tended to be the less able.
Other subjects appear to have benefited. PE was the fastest-growing course, with entries rising 7.5 per cent from 134,134 to 144,194. The number taking religious studies rose 4.6 per cent to 147,516 and information technology 4.6 per cent to 103,400.
There was a shift from double science, where entries dropped 6 per cent to single-subject GCSEs in biology, physics, chemistry and single-award science, which all had increased entries.
The proportion of entries from boys awarded a C or better rose from 54.9 to 57 per cent this year, closing the gap slightly on girls (63.3 to 65.2).
However, girls extended their lead in the proportion of entries awarded A* and A.
At the bottom end of the scale, for the first time in six years, there was a fall in the proportion of entries graded unclassified, from 2.4 to 2.2 per cent. However, the latest figure is still higher than it was in the 1990s.
Intermediate General National Vocational Qualifications continue to increase in popularity, entry numbers rising 4 per cent to 104,967, even though qualification will be phased out in two years.
However, Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham university, writing in today's TES, argues the GNVQ is of little use to pupils and is only popular because it helps schools climb the league tables.
Opinion 13, Leader 14, Debate 15