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Language learning on the brink of crisis

TES poll raises prospect of thousands of pupils dropping French and German as Government makes them optional.

More than half of England's secondary schools are poised to end compulsory languages from the age of 14 as a result of plans to change the law, a survey covering nearly 67,000 pupils suggests today.

Twenty-nine per cent of schools will make languages optional for 14-year-olds and a further 25 per cent are considering doing so, the TESCentre for Information on Language Teaching poll shows.

The survey also reveals a split by social class, fuelling fears that languages could soon become a middle-class option as schools serving the poorest communities become less likely to make children study French or German.

The survey of 393 schools in England comes as ministers prepare to announce their national language strategy. They have already proposed making languages optional.

Extrapolating the findings across the country would suggest that 1,866 of England's 3,457 state secondaries will make languages optional.

Business leaders said languages were vital for the country's economy and Peter Hain, the former Europe minister, said: "Language is a vitally important way to make students good Europeans."

At present all 14 to 16-year-olds must study a foreign language, unless they get an exemption from their headteacher.

The TESCilt poll carried out last month asked which schools and pupils would be most affected by a change. Schools struggling to improve their exam grades appear to be most likely to allow pupils to drop languages, which are generally seen to be difficult. More than four out of 10 schools with fewer than half of pupils getting five Cs or better at GCSE will make languages optional if the law is changed to allow this.

The survey suggests many schools have already ditched compulsory languages. A quarter of those polled no longer described them as compulsory and the number allowing more than 15 per cent of pupils to opt out has tripled since 2000.

The Office for Standards in Education said this year that in a third of schools more than 66 per cent of 14-year-olds had abandoned languages. And it said that one school in 10 no longer offered the prescribed range of subjects for 14 to 16-year-olds.

This year's annual Ofsted report showed that there is less very good and more bad teaching in languages than in any other subject. In GCSE classes, for example, 77 per cent of English teaching is good or better compared with only 53 per cent for modern languages.

The take-up of modern languages has varied widely in the past 50 years. At the end of the 1970s around 70 per cent of pupils dropped languages at 14. The introduction of the national curriculum in 1991 meant all pupils aged 11 to 16 had to study a language. However, the revised curriculum introduced in August 2000 let pupils opt out of languages to concentrate on work-related learning, study fewer subjects, or focus on a particular curriculum area.

Further guidance issued this September, said "disapplication" - or exemption - from studying languages should no longer be considered exceptional.

Dr Lid King, director of Cilt, said: "The extent of disapplication is a matter of concern and suggests that schools are jumping the gun in the expectation that the 14 to 19 proposals will reduce the statutory requirement for languages."

A government spokesman said the forthcoming National Languages Strategy would make children enthusiastic about studying languages at primary school.

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