Qualifications widely used in schools in 20 foreign languages - including Hindi, Cantonese and Tamil - are facing the axe under plans drawn up by one of the major exam boards. The Asset languages courses will be scaled back to just French, German, Spanish, Italian and Mandarin, according to OCR, with courses in "community languages" scrapped.
The exam board said the decision was taken because low pupil take-up meant they were no longer financially viable. But the move has provoked a furore among teachers, who want to be able to reward pupils' abilities in languages that fall outside the mainstream curriculum.
An online petition started by Dr Terry Lamb, senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield and board member of the Speak to the Future languages campaign, has already been signed by more than 1,200 people. It calls for OCR to reconsider its plans and demands that the government does more to promote community languages.
"One of the great achievements of Asset languages has been to make no distinction between the status of languages or the status of learners: an intermediate level in Bengali is exactly equivalent to an intermediate level in French or German," the petition states.
Asset qualifications are currently available in a range of languages where there is no GCSE option, such as Cantonese, Somali, Swedish or Yoruba. The scheme also gives pupils the opportunity to gain qualifications in some of the world's major languages, such as Arabic, Hindi or Portuguese, at a lower level than the GCSEs on offer. More than 400,000 qualifications have been awarded since the scheme was launched in 2005.
The OCR decision follows changes to the way secondary school league tables are assessed, which mean Asset intermediate-level qualifications no longer count towards headline scores.
Steven Fawkes, a trustee of the Association for Language Learning, said the government had to shoulder responsibility for the demise of the qualifications. "OCR says it is a decision based on money, but it was political will that got it started and now the political will is not seeing it through," he said.
The move is set against a background of declining interest in languages. Since it was made optional to take a foreign language GCSE in 2004, numbers have plummeted. In 2011, just 40 per cent of pupils took a language GCSE.
But the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, which requires a foreign language, appears to have dramatically slowed the decline. This year there were just 0.5 per cent fewer French entries and a drop of 5.5 per cent in German. Community languages have seen big increases, with Portuguese up 19 per cent, Arabic up 18 per cent and Polish up 18 per cent.
A Department for Education spokesman said the EBac was designed to encourage pupils to take subjects favoured by employers and colleges. "This should not affect the choice of languages schools offer at Asset language level," he said. "Schools must make this decision based on the needs of their pupils."
Ruth Ahmedzai, a peripatetic Russian and Arabic teacher in Gloucestershire, said that one school she teaches in offers Arabic to sixth-form students for one and a half hours a week. "That's not enough time for a GCSE, but in that time you can do an Asset qualification, which is valuable for students' CVs, university applications or just if they are interested in languages," she said.
Siva Pillai, the principal examiner for Asset languages in Tamil, said the language was chiefly taught in community schools, but was also offered in primary schools.
An OCR spokesman said: "The portfolio has always been based on a delicate balance between the more popular modern foreign languages taught in schools and the less commonly taught languages. In some community languages, uptake has been very low and stubbornly resistant to change."
Earlier this year, OCR chief executive Mark Dawe said the board would be willing to set up an Asset exam for any community that could raise pound;100,000 and show evidence that 3,000 people had pledged to take the exam over a three-year period.
The 25 languages offered by OCR in the Asset scheme are: Arabic, Bengali, Cantonese, Cornish, French, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Panjabi, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Swedish, Tamil, Turkish, Urdu, Welsh and Yoruba.
Qualifications can be taken separately in the four skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening.
It's not all Greek
Entries to Asset language courses in 2012:
- 13,887 French
- 6,940 Spanish
- 241 Arabic
- 24 Turkish
- 13 Greek.