A TES poll suggests that working-class children will be the first to drop modern languages if the Government makes them optional. Helen Ward reports.
THE study of languages could soon be the preserve of the middle class, as schools serving the poorest communities let children drop French and German.
A poll of 393 schools for The TES and the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (Cilt), found that 29 per cent of all schools will make languages optional, if the law is changed to allow this (see box right).
The Government wants to make languages optional at the age of 14 to free up curriculum time.
But schools with a high proportion of children on free school meals - an indication of low income - are far more likely to make the subject optional than those in more prosperous areas.
In fact more than 50 per cent of schools in deprived areas - those with more than half of pupils on free meals - intend to let 14-year-olds drop languages. This compares with 16 per cent of schools in affluent areas.
Dr Lid King, director of Cilt, said: "There are worrying indications that continuing success in languages is becoming the preserve of certain social groups. This is confirmed by the survey. It is something to which we should pay urgent attention."
The Government's move will also create a divide between state and private schools, which still place a strong emphasis on language teaching.
Richard Hoare, chairman of the Independent Schools Modern Languages Association, said: "Parents expect their children to study modern languages in independent schools. They expect them to start early and to continue through to at least one GCSE."
But the Government says that its proposal recognises that many state pupils already get special exemptions from heads - so-called "disapplication"- from the subject.
It argues that making languages optional at 14 will enable resources to be focused on key stage 3 and, in the longer term, primary schools, in the hope that an earlier start will help motivate pupils to choose to study languages as they get older.
The proposals have been attacked by language organisations. The Nuffield Languages Programme has said that removing the subject from the core curriculum would be "disastrous in political, economic and social terms".
The TESCilt poll asked what was stopping a greater take-up of languages in schools. The most common response was pupil attitudes, followed by government policies and teacher supply.
But pupil attitudes were not as big a problem in schools which gave a high priority to the subject. The 30 specialist language colleges taking part in the poll said government policies were the main obstacle to expanding language study, followed by teacher supply, with pupil attitudes coming in third.
Language colleges get extra money from the Department for Education and Skills in order to raise standards in the subject and to work with neighbouring schools and their community.
At the 30 language colleges surveyed more than one in four pupils left with GCSEs in two languages last year, compared to 6 per cent of pupils at other schools.
But it was not only language colleges which had good results. Trevor Lawn is head of languages at Brittons school, a technical college in the London borough of Havering. All Year 10 pupils are studying GCSE French and only one in Year 11 has been allowed to opt out. He said: "We have proved here that if pupils are provided with a motivating structure then there is no reason to say success at GCSE can't be achieved."
The Government argues that freeing up curriculum time at key stage 4 will also make it easier for pupils to study two languages.
There were 19 languages offered among the 393 secondaries surveyed. After French, German and Spanish, the most popular were Italian - offered in 42 schools - Russian, Urdu, Chinese, Arabic and Bengali. Other languages included Portuguese, Turkish, Punjabi, Dutch, Japanese, Greek, Persian, Polish and Hebrew.
The survey also revealed the growing popularity of Spanish, at the expense of more traditional French and German. It found 90 schools doing less French than last year compared to 46 doing more and 81 schools doing less German compared to 41 doing more. But 79 schools were doing more Spanish and 30 doing less.
TES Teacher, 8; Leader, 24
* 29 per cent of schools polled have decided to make languages optional at KS4 - a further 25 per cent are considering making it optional
* 31 per cent have increased the number of pupils "disapplied" (exempted) from languages since 2000
* A quarter of schools polled no longer have all pupils doing languages
* Across all schools, the greatest obstacle to expanding language learning is seen as pupil attitudes. In specialist language colleges the greatest obstacle is seen as government policies