INTERNATIONAL primary schools should be set up to ensure that at least one in 25 11-year-olds is bilingual by 2010, under a set of radical proposals put forward by an influential inquiry team.
A network of specialist primary schools should be set up to teach pupils most subjects through a foreign language, according to a panel of 12 educationists and industrialists headed by the former ITN newsreader Sir Trevor McDonald.
The Government should also demand that every pupil study a language from the age of seven by 2010, they say in a report published this week. Ministers should introduce language modules into the national literacy strategy to "train the ear" of every pupil, the two-year, pound;500,000 inquiry concluded.
All sixth-formers should be forced to study a language and teenagers should be barred from going to university unless they pass a language competence test.
The two-year study into Britain's language skills also attacked the Government for its lack of a "coherent approach" to language teaching in schools.
It concluded that the service is inadequate at all levels from primary school to university and said all seven to 19-year-olds should have to study a language.
The inquiry team blamed the Government's lack of "joined-up thinking" for the chronic shortage of Britons able to speak a foreign language - and said it threatened to put the country at an international disadvantage.
They called for secondary schools to provide more languages, arguing that the jobs market requires competence in many languages, not just French.
They said: "Schools and colleges do not provide an adequate range of languages and levels of competence for the future. Curricular, financial and staffing pressures mean that we teach a narrowing range of languages, when we should be doing the opposite."
The report also demanded that the Government should attract more language teachers and give trainee teachers the opportunity to improve their language skills.
It called for the Government to establish a national languages strategy headed by a "languages supremo" with direct access to the Prime Minister.
The inquiry, backed by the Nuffield Foundation, a charity that funds educational and social research, was commissioned after linguists expressed concern about Britons' langage skills.
Under its proposals for international primary schools, more than 100 primaries a year for 10 years would be eligible for extra funding. They would deliver all, or most, lessons in the chosen language so that pupils would be bilingual by the age of 11.
The report said: "A radical approach is more likely to attract success. Children taught from age five clearly make more progress than those who start later; teaching children the whole or a major part of the curriculum through the medium of the target language achieves more than teaching the language for a few short lessons per week."
Schools minister Jacqui Smith welcomed the inquiry's findings and highlighted government initiatives to increase take-up at school - including language colleges, training salaries for language teachers and curriculum guidance for primary staff considering introducing a language to eight-year-olds. But employers also had a role in promoting the benefits of language skills to young people, she added.
Ms Smith said: "We shall look carefully at what Nuffield has to say as we develop the languages education and training agenda."
Pupils start learning a foreign language at six in Austria, Norway and Luxemburg. In Italy, the starting age is seven, in Spain and Liechtenstein, eight. Greek and French youngsters begin at nine whereas in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal they start at 10. In Iceland, pupils begin at 11.
KEY PROPOSALS OF NUFFIELD INQUIRY
All pupils to learn a new language from age seven by 2010.
Add language modules to the national literacy strategy.
Set up international primary schools - specialist schools to teach the majority of the curriculum in a foreign language.
Secondary schools to provide more than just French.
Make a foreign language a requirement for university entry and for vocational courses and compulsory for all 16 to 19-year-olds.
Attract more language teachers.Teacher training should include the opportunity for trainees to develop linguistic and professional skills.
Produce national strategy to develop language capability.
Appoint languages supremo to work with government departments, national agencies, employers and the public.
Launch advertising campaign to raise the profile of languages.