Parents want their children to learn foreign languages from the age of seven or even younger, according to a survey commissioned by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.
The findings, based on face-to-face interviews with parents and a national opinion poll of more than 1,000 adults, were published yesterday to coincide with the launch of the new "slimline" national curriculum.
The new curriculum follows an exhaustive public consultation exercise during which Sir Ron Dearing, SCAA chairman, has sought the views of parents and employers, along with teachers and other professionals. The new curriculum Orders are due to be sent to schools later this month, and will come into effect next September.
MORI researchers who interviewed a cross-section of parents in discussion groups found "virtually unanimous" support for compulsory language teaching in primary schools. Parents wanted 90 minutes a week of teaching in French, German or Spanish, if necessary at the expense of religious education. They found similar views among industrial leaders who want primary and secondary schools to teach European languages, concentrating on oral fluency as a vital business tool.
The groundswell of support for wider foreign language speaking was backed by another poll by Gallup. Although it found that four in five people backed English, maths and science as the core national curriculum subjects, 63 per cent of those who disagreed felt that a modern foreign language was just as important.
The Government has no plans to introduce languages in primary schools. But a SCAA spokesman said the 20 per cent of classroom time which will be freed as a result of Sir Ron's revisions could increasingly be used for languages.
Christine Wilding, secretary general of the Association for Language Learning, said: "Primary schools are already bowing to parental pressure and teaching languages, but this is excellent news. We want the Government to put in long-term planning so it does not happen in a disorganised way." She called for a GCSE pass in a modern foreign language to be compulsory for all trainee teachers by 1998, to produce a teaching force capable of delivering universal language teaching in primaries by the middle of the next decade.
The desire among parents for their children to start speaking foreign languages before 11 is demonstrated by the huge growth in the Club Francais, after-school language centres. From one club with 250 members in November 1990, the organisation has grown to 350 franchises with 30,000 members and a Pounds 0.5 million annual turnover. Founder and director Linda Ellis admits the success is partly down to a gap in state provision.
Parents told MORI that a European language would open opportunities in careers and travel for their children, especially with the increasing importance of the European Union. All children should study languages until the age of 16, they say.
Employers and parents agreed that oral skills were more important than written ones, partially because in written communication in business is more likely to be in English. Many employers grouped English and maths as the primary core subjects with science and modern foreign languages second.
Yesterday's launch, which saw Education Secretary Gillian Shephard give her approval to a radically slimmed down curriculum, followed the largest public consultation exercise in education in England with more than 58,000 written responses, at a cost of Pounds 6 million.
Government advisers have listened to educationists' views and made numerous concessions. In English, for example, Government advisers have compromised on Standard English, book lists, phonics, media studies and drama. And in design and technology, the subject which has been rewritten four times since 1991, campaigning home economics teachers have forced SCAA to loosen the grip of statute at key stage 3 to give pupils more opportunities to study food.