A survey of 1,000 comprehensive, grammar and independent schools, published by the Secondary Heads Association over the summer, indicates that 8 per cent of comprehensives are not offering modern languages to all key stage 4 pupils this year, despite the new curriculum requirement to do so. It also shows that one in five comprehensives is offering only a short course in languages from Year 10.
The most common cause of concern raised by headteachers was the lack of qualified staff. Yet as many as 13 per cent of language teacher training places may remain unfilled this academic year and the number of foreign language assistants hired by UK schools has fallen by 16 per cent since 199495.
David Sword, chairman of NALA, says advisers are very concerned about this. "Headteachers have been put in an impossible position, they can't find qualified staff. It's a policy initiative - extending languages to all at key stage 4 - that's not been thought through in terms of the resources required.
"Heads are concerned about the lack of staff expertise. We felt the government had direct responsibility for that and it has done very little to achieve the levels we need. It's just part of the picture of the impending shortage of teachers. It looks as though the Teacher Training Agency will have to address it more rapidly."
The Department for Education and Employment's submission to the teacher's pay review body said there were just 558 vacancies for secondary teachers in January this year, though languages were in the worst position.
However, in the SHA survey 27 per cent of comprehensives were worried about the availability of staff for offering languages to all at key stage 4 and nearly the same number felt it would adversely affect their ability to offer a second language.
According to the Teacher Training Agency, the number of places filled on initial teacher training courses fell 14.5 per per cent below the target in September 1995, and in June this year there were only 87 candidates for every 100 places. The training institutions tried to make up some of the shortfall over the summer, but an accurate picture of the September intake will not emerge until next week. The alarming situation has made languages one of six priority subjects being given extra support and promotion by the agency this year.
The problem has been compounded by schools' inability to afford foreign language assistants. Figures from the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges show that the number of foreign language assistants taken on by UK schools fell from 2,891 in 199495 to 2,419 in 199697, despite the new requirement to teach all pupils at key stage 4. (In Scotland the number has fallen by a staggering 26 per cent.) The Central Bureau is hoping to initiate a survey to find out why the decline is taking place and see what can be done about it.
Anthony Howick, head of the bureau's assistants department, says: "It's sad, because everyone is telling us there's never been a time - with key stage 4 becoming compulsory - when foreign language assistants are more needed and more relevant."
David Sword says it is clear that schools don't have enough money to pay for foreign assistants. "Sometimes the view has been put about that schools don't think they are good value for money, but our evidence is that they are good value, schools don't have the money to employ them."
He is worried that the staffing and foreign language assistant problems will cause more schools to switch away from offering a full GCSE to a short courses in future, a fear prompted by the surprisingly high number of schools - exclusively comprehensives - that have decided to offer only a short course to all pupils.
David Sword says: "We are quite disheartened about that. The figures indicate that an even larger number are thinking of offering short courses at a future stage. But we don't think a short course is a useful method of learning a language. There's not enough time to learn to the standards that ought to be achieved."
Another point of interest in the SHA survey, which covered concerns about key stage 4 across all subjects, was that 38 per cent of headteachers of comprehensives said they would like to have more coursework in modern languages, which NALA supports. "We feel a stronger element of coursework in GCSE courses helps to motivate students and helps them to achieve higher standards," says David Sword.