FOREIGN LANGUAGE lessons should be made compulsory in primary schools, and if new measures fail to lead more 14-year-olds to study them, their mandatory status at secondary should be restored, government advisers said this week.
The initial conclusions from Lord Dearing's inquiry into the "severe" decline in the proportion of 14 to 16-year-old pupils studying languages - now down to 51 per cent - also called for more interesting lessons and more foreign visits for pupils.
Reversing the Government's decision to remove languages from the compulsory key stage 4 curriculum was something that "should be used if it proves to be needed", his interim report said. His preferred option is a "middle way", with schools setting targets, enforced by Ofsted, to improve their 14-16 language uptake.
Lord Dearing said any return to a compulsory requirement must be qualified with an opt-out for pupils struggling in maths and English, and must allow languages to be studied at different levels, with other qualifications recognised alongside the GCSE.
But his decision to re-open the debate over the 14-16 requirement (not part of his remit) will be welcomed by those lobbying for its return. They include 50 leading academics and Denis MacShane, Labour's former Europe minister, who in The TES today describes the decision to drop foreign languages as education policy-makers' worst mistake so far this century.
The compulsory primary lessons suggested also went beyond the inquiry's original scope and the Government's commitment to give all KS2 pupils an "entitlement" to study languages by 2010.
It is understood Lord Dearing believes compulsory languages should be considered at key stages 1 and 2, and thinks there is prima facie evidence that tough GCSE grade boundaries discourage schools and pupils from languages. His report called for the QCA to resolve the debate over the issue.
The inquiry called for ladder qualifications - allowing pupils to achieve 17 different grades in speaking, listening, reading and writing - to be adopted across the primary and secondary sectors and to be recognised in league tables.
Lord Dearing believes study should be more relevant to young people's interests, with more varied methods, including immersion courses, more ICT and more interactive lessons. Brinsworth comprehensive, Rotherham, highlighted in the report for its use of ICT, has achieved a rise in the proportion of 14 to 16-year-olds taking languages, up from 36 per cent to 52 per cent since 2002.
Clare Fee, deputy head of languages, said her department was one of the first in the school to use interactive whiteboards. "Using overhead projectors was quite stilted, but lessons are very dynamic now," she said.
Denis MacShane, page 22 UCL FAVOURS LINGUISTS
University College London has become the first university to insist on language qualifications. From 2012, applicants will need at least one language GCSE to study there.
"We describe ourselves as London's global university and we feel it is essential that students have an understanding of how another language operates and, crucially, another culture," said Professor Michael Worton, UCL's vice-provost.
At present, UCL insists on the requirement only for language degrees, but is also "preferable" for arts subjects. The change will appear in its prospectus from 2008. The idea is to give schools and local authorities an incentive to fund language departments.
LORD DEARING'S RECOMMENDATIONS
* Languages compulsory in primaries and across secondaries if new targets fail to increase 14-16 take-up.
* ICT, qualification reform and more teacher training to counter boring lessons.
* Support for schools in offering greater variety of languages, including those of local immigrants.
* "Highly stressful" GCSE speaking and listening tests to be replaced by teacher assessment.
* Secondary teachers surplus following decline in pupil numbers retained to cover extra teacher training andor redeployed to primary schools.
* Further consideration of whether foreign languages should be a compulsory part of the new 14-19 vocational diplomas.
* More opportunities for schools to adopt languages as a second specialism.