THE study of languages could soon be the preserve of the middle classes, as schools serving the poorest communities let children drop French and German.
A poll of 393 schools south of the border for The TES and the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (Cilt) found that 29 per cent have decided to make languages optional, if ministers emulate Scottish practice and press on with their plan to scrap compulsion at 14.
But most schools in deprived areas - which have more than half of pupils on free meals - intend to let 14-year-olds drop languages. Schools say negative attitudes among pupils are the most common reason, followed by government policy and teacher supply.
Ministers say their proposal recognises that many young people are already winning special exemptions from their heads from modern languages.
North of the border, the First Minister set a precedent by backing an "entitlement" to learn languages that has been shrouded in obfuscation. Secondary headteachers have used it as a get-out for many pupils.
Jack McConnell, a former education minister, himself re-emphasised three weeks ago to heads that compulsory languages may not be appropriate for all pupils in the middle years of secondary. Curriculum flexibility was important, Mr McConnell said.
Gordon Millan, chair of the Universities Council of Modern Languages and professor of French at Strathclyde University, said there was some evidence that directors and headteachers were taking advantage of the ambiguity to close down departments and languages.
"There is a likelihood that unless we change our attitudes we are likely to follow the English example," Professor Millan said.
In England, ministers argue that making languages optional at 14 will allow resources to be targeted at a younger age group in the hope that an earlier start in learning French, German or Spanish will help to motivate pupils.
But the proposals have been heavily criticised. The Nuffield Languages Programme has said that removing languages from the core curriculum would be "disastrous in political, economic and social terms".
The survey showed that French, German and Spanish were the most popular languages, followed by Italian, Russian, Urdu, Chinese, Arabic and Bengali. But Spanish is becoming more popular.
Ninety schools were doing less French than last year compared with 46 doing more and 81 doing less German and 41 doing more. In Spanish, numbers were reversed with 79 doing more and 30 less.