The crisis in A-level modern languages is so pressing that changes may be made before the planned exam reform in 2016, Ofqual chief regulator Glenys Stacey said yesterday.
Numbers taking French, for example, have dropped by 40 per cent since 2001. The TES reported in September that even high-flying students at elite private schools are no longer prepared to take languages because of the risk of not getting the grades they need for entrance to leading universities.
Ms Stacey (pictured) said the results of an investigation into claims that MFLs are more severely graded than other subjects will be published at the end of term.
The problem centres on the fact that while the proportion of linguists achieving A or A* is second only too mathematics and further mathematics, the number of these top-performing students who get an A* is remarkably low.
In French, 40 per cent of students got an A or A* according to new figures out yesterday but only one in six of those top grades was an A* compared to almost one in three across all subjects.
Teachers have warned that potential language students are put off by the low odds of getting the very best grade.
Speaking at a conference for headteachers in London yesterday Stacey suggested that this problem is so pronounced that changes may have to be brought in faster than other planned changes to A-levels.
“In modern foreign languages, there is something strange, let’s put it that way. There is something awry and we are looking at what it is, unpicking why that is,” she said.
“It is complicated and there are a number of things going on but I do think and hope we can improve matters, so do watch out for that. We hope to get something out in this academic year on that to see what we can do.
“I’m not saying we can do anything in the current A levels, we may have to wait until reform, but if we can do something we will.”
Helen Myers, chair of the Association of Language Learning’s London branch and assistant head at the Ashcombe School,Surrey, said: “It would be welcome, even if it is a short-term solution, for something to come in now. This problem genuinely affects students who would really benefit from doing languages and, as a nation, we want more people to do languages.
“Currently there are students who think they would like to do languages but, if they are thinking of applying to Oxbridge need A*s across the board, and this issue in languages is really deterring them.”
Reporting by Helen Ward