A shortage of examiners means the only GCSE in Hebrew might have to be scrapped. Elaine Carlton reports.
Pupils starting their first year GCSE at Hasmonean School in London this week strode into their modern Hebrew lesson unaware that the exam's very existence is under threat.
A shortage of examiners means their GCSE could be abandoned within the next three months, affecting hundreds of pupils across the country.
The Jewish community had hoped sufficient examiners would be found before the start of the autumn term. but as things stand, the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board - the only one which offers the GCSE - is still unable to guarantee this year's course.
"If a suitable team of examiners cannot be found, the future of the syllabus has to be in doubt," says Don Leeming of the NEAB.
Hebrew teachers are currently forced to teach without a syllabus for the 1998 exam as none can be written until the team has been appointed.
The Board advertised for examiners in June and is to start interviews within the next few weeks. Even so, there are fears that many applicants will not fulfil the NEAB's strict criteria.
Chana Moore, head of Hebrew at Hasmonean, where 150 pupils take GCSE every year, has herself applied to become an examiner, and is a case in point.
A native speaker, she has been teaching Hebrew in this country for 22 years but fails to fulfil one requirement because, like many other Israelis teaching in Britain, she has no previous examining experience.
"I want to save the subject. I may not have examining experience, but I can learn," she says.
The board is thought to be concerned however that native speakers have difficulty understanding the problems of pupils learning Hebrew as a second language and that after a few years' stay in Britain they head off back to Israel causing disruption for the pupils.
Shoshana Sharpe, an Israeli who taught Hebrew in Britain for 23 years says this behaviour has changed and that now most teachers who come from Isreal plan to stay long term. She believes that native speakers in fact make better teachers as they can share good pronunciation and a first-hand understanding of the country's culture with the pupils.
"We can talk to them about current events and teach them the language, which is rarely used in this country," she says.
Hebrew is not the only minority language course to have found itself in trouble. Some 18 months ago Polish and Ukrainian were also under threat. Ukrainian has been dropped. But the Polish community was notably organised and successful in finding both funding and examiners required by the board.
In a bid to get to grips with the new format GCSE, which brings all modern languages up to the same standard, Ms Moore and her team have studied the new syllabuses for French and German.
"Most of the questions for the listening and reading comprehensions are now asked in the target language, so pupils can't take it easy," says Ms Sharpe.
Despite their concern about the future of the exam, the teachers have decided not to talk about their doubts in class: "We have decided to radiate confidence as we don't want the pupils to feel uncertain about the subject."
But they remain particularly worried about pupils who have picked Hebrew as their sole modern language at GCSE:they will be the worst hit if the exam is abandoned. A modern language is now seen as standard by employers as well as higher education institutions.
The school plans to enter two classes of 15-year-olds for the GCSE a year early in an attempt to increase the pupils' chances of getting the qualification.