Languages dying of ennui
As anxiety grows about the future of languages when they become optional for 14-year-olds this September, the report urges exam boards to replace "uninteresting and irrelevant syllabuses".
Teachers complain that they will have to "sell" dreary French, German or Spanish courses about buying bus tickets and ice creams. They also fear that a sharp drop in the number of good passes last year after the introduction of new GCSE courses is threatening the take-up of languages, the report from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority says.
The report found that a third of schools had made languages optional, and in some schools fewer than half of key stage 4 pupils were learning a language.
The authority blamed the exam boards for the dull courses. It said it had tried to "persuade awarding bodies to include topics that are relevant to candidates, reflect their maturity, and to set less prescriptive tasks".
The boards said that it was the authority's fault. Bene't Steinberg, of OCR, said: "GCSEs are created to the QCA criteria and the QCA signs them all off. If the QCA does not like it they will send it back with suggestions.
"The key is getting the balance between relevance and rigour, to go too far one way is to dumb down and to go too far the other way is to drive people away."
The Office for Standards in Education criticised language teaching in secondary schools earlier this year. Inspectors found the curriculum for 14 to 16-year-olds failed to interest a significant proportion of pupils.
Peter Boaks, acting director of Cilt, the national centre for languages, said: "Exam boards need to speak to teachers to find out what works well, what pupils are doing and how the assessment system can reflect that."
Kit Thorne, chairman of the National Association of Language Advisers, said: "Some high-flying children find it a bit trivial to order ice cream in French when in chemistry or history they are doing so much more sophisticated work."
He said that in Oldham, where he works, most of the 15 schools have already seen a big exodus of pupils from languages.
Chris Maynard, QCA consultant for modern foreign languages, said: "With the changes to the key stage 4 curriculum, some teachers are understandably worried because they are finding it very difficult to hold on to pupils.
"We have found that there is a concern that languages GCSEs are not something which turn a lot of pupils on. If anything they have the opposite effect."
Exam board Edexcel has obtained permission from the QCA to pilot a French GCSE which involves more mature and interesting topics. More than 60 schools are taking part.
The project, aimed at 14-year-olds, gives pupils the chance to choose whether to study speaking and writing in the context of business, leisure and tourism or media and communications.
Alistair Drewery, qualifications leader for modern foreign languages at the Edexcel, said: "It is quite mature. Instead of writing a letter to your penfriend, you may send and email about a business conference booking to Lille.
"A high-level task in the media and communications option may be writing a film review, so it ties in with the interests of students."
Judith O'Hare, former head of languages at Oakmead college of technology, Bournemouth and now an adviser for the authority intends to introduce the Edexcel course to seven schools.
"As languages are becoming optional people, are looking for something more interesting for their students. We are enthused and are really looking forward to it," she said.