The government should try to prevent the long-term decline in the number of pupils studying languages by making them compulsory at key stage 4, a think tank has recommended.
A Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) report also calls for more varied courses at A level, with options for pupils to carry out creative coursework and a wider choice of topics to study within languages, including media, culture and linguistics.
The report – A languages crisis? – warns that UK pupils are “miles behind” their European peers when it comes to knowledge of modern foreign languages, with less than a third of those aged 16-30 able to speak and read in another language.
It argues that the decision by the New Labour government to scrap compulsory requirements to study languages at key stage 4 in 2002 had led to a severe decline in the number of pupils taking French and German. Less than half of UK pupils take modern foreign languages at GCSE, compared with 76 per cent in 2002.
It also warns that an exodus of EU citizens following Brexit could exacerbate existing language deficiencies in the UK, and says the lack of language learning causes “cultural apathy” towards other countries.
“In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the scrapping of the compulsory foreign language GCSE in 2004 has had a detrimental effect on national uptake levels," the paper says.
“This measure failed to anticipate the vast drop in uptake.”
Study of a language GCSE is necessary for the government's English Baccalaureate school performance measure.
The report describes this as "a positive move for recognising languages as a key part of the curriculum". But it also notes that the exclusion of alternative and vocational language qualifications as qualifying subjects for the EBacc "reduced the flexibility of language-learning opportunities".
And the EBacc has failed to reverse the overall decline in uptake.
The report states that French and German GCSE entries have dropped considerably, with uptake of French declining by 63 per cent since 2002, while German entries decreased by 67 per cent during the same period, although Spanish has experienced growth.
It also states that A-level entries for French and German have been in long-term decline since the mid-1990s, with a corresponding fall in numbers applying to study languages at university.
This is partly because “languages education is increasingly restricted to highly academic GCSE and A-level courses – languages are failing to suit the needs of all pupils, and consequently fewer gain any proficiency”.
The report recommends that language courses become more varied to suit all pupils, with more options to carry out creative coursework tasks or record dialogue as part of their studies.
The report’s author, Megan Bowler, a third-year Classics student at the University of Oxford, cautioned that lower take-up of MFL subjects was storing up problems for the future.
“These ‘pipeline’ issues are impacting numbers of languages graduates and trained teachers, which, combined with reductions in EU staff, will threaten school provision,” she wrote.
“The assumption that 'the rest of the world speaks English' hinders new international collaborations and overlooks cultural and cognitive enhancement developed by learning.
“Political developments mean change is more pressing. If the UK is to thrive outside the EU, language skills cannot be ignored – the UK must address educational declines and capitalise on 'untapped reservoirs of linguistic capacity'.
“It is crucial that ancient and modern languages receive support in schools and higher education.”
She said foreign language study should be compulsory at GCSE level, with pupils encouraged, but not obliged to take an accredited GCSE or alternative qualification.
Nick Hillman, HEPI’s director said: "The decision to limit language learning in schools by making GCSE languages voluntary is probably the single most damaging education policy implemented in England so far this century.
"The UK is bottom of the pile for the number of young people familiar with another language, and miles behind every EU country."
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are committed to ensuring more pupils are studying languages, which is why it is compulsory for all children between Years 3 and 9.
"The introduction of the EBacc halted the decline in languages, and since 2010, the proportion of pupils studying a language at GCSE has risen from 40 per cent to 47 per cent in 2019.
“We are also taking a range of steps to make sure that the uptake of languages continues to increase, such as creating a new network of schools and funding programmes like our Mandarin Excellence Programme.”