French was made optional this year but Spanish remains compulsory at key stage 3, pitted against geography, art, dance and resistant materials. ICT and a work-related subject are compulsory.
Head Alun Pelleschi had inherited a flagging languages department when he took over in 1999 and switched to an optional system because of a crisis of confidence among pupils caused by poor teaching and results.
Last summer just three pupils out of 90 gained a French GCSE, while three got A* to C grades in Spanish. This year the Spanish cohort has increased, but only to 18.
Christine Hill became languages manager last April. Ms Hill, who formerly owned a private language school in Madrid, said it was necessary to recognise the needs of children in a poor area. "Spanish is the language of the future. These children are more likely to go to Spain on holiday. They have posters of Shakira and Ricky Martin. Spanish relates to their world."
Spanish has also been the popular choice for several years at the 1,902-pupil Crown Woods School, in Eltham, south-east London, which also offers French and German.
This year the mixed comprehensive introduced Italian as staff shortages were making life hard for the 30 students studying German. Richard Winston, head of modern foreign languages, said: "We wanted to give them a fresh start. Some are getting on very well, but it is hard to bring others back into the language pool."
Crown Woods' French cohort dropped from six classes to four this year. And a sixth of students in Year 10, most of whom are boys, are not studying any foreign language. Last year eight pupils passed Spanish GCSE with A to C grades, while 57 gained D to G grades. There are 40 pupils studying Spanish in Year 10 and the same number in Year 11. Mr Winston hopes that the 120 Spanish students in Year 8 will mean a bigger number of students next year at key stage 4.