Last month Dr Nicholas Tate, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, said he would ensure important but uneconomic subjects continue to be taught. Exam boards, he said, have a "public duty" to offer minority courses.
This followed the news that the examination giant Edexcel is planning to drop A-levels in Arabic, Hebrew and Turkish, claiming they were too expensive to run. Edexcel is officially a charity and says the number of candidates is too low to be viable. In 1996 there were 120 students taking Arabic A-level, 120 taking Turkish, 70 choosing Biblical Hebrew and 50 modern Hebrew. But critics of the board have pointed out that last year it made a surplus of Pounds 2.6 million.
A spokeswoman from the QCA said this week: "We're in discussion with the boards at the moment with a view to meeting candidates' short-term and longer-term needs. One possibility is using our powers as an accrediting body to make it a requirement that these courses are maintained." However, she continued, there remains a problem finding sufficient qualified examiners in some subjects.
John Ferguson from the Association of Language Learning said: "We are very concerned about the situation with minority languages. If the A-levels are abandoned, it will be very difficult to persuade pupils to study these subjects at all, and there will be major implications for higher education. We will be pursuing this matter and keeping up the pressure on the exam boards and the QCA. It appears that the QCA could be our best chance." Some fear community languages could disappear from Britain altogether if they drop out of the school curriculum, as younger generations increasingly rely on English.
"This is something I'm very concerned about, not only for A-level but for GCSE as well," said Jim Anderson, a lecturer in the department of educational studies at Goldsmiths College, London and an expert on Turkish. "There's very little teaching of community languages going on in mainstream schools."
Nadia Abdelaal of Arabica, a pressure group set up to support Arabic teaching, said: "I met with headteachers from across the country in London last week but the mood was not very optimistic. We are still trying to put pressure on Edexcel.
"We're looking at other alternatives such as persuading the Cambridge board to offer an Arabic exam, but the future is looking bleak.
"My research shows that the number of pupils with Arab backgrounds living in the major cities in Britain has doubled over the last five years and is continuing to increase. In my opinion it would be a tragedy to let Arabic die."