THE Government this week put specialist schools at the heart of its drive to improve language learning, ignoring calls from experts that lessons should start in primaries.
The plan was disclosed in its long-awaited response to the Nuffield report which said language learning in Britain was in a dire state. Schools minister Jacqui Smith said specialist language schools - to number 130 by 2004 - would give primary pupils and adult learners greater access.
She said regional language champions would be appointed to link schools, colleges, universities and employers. More online courses will be available at key stage 2 and 3.
The language lobby dismissed the response as "a mish-mash". It said GCSE entries could be hit by the new work-related courses next year, language teachers were in short supply and the number of university language departments had fallen.
The two-year Nuffield inquiry, chaired by newsreader Trevor McDonald, called for the appointment of a languages supremo, language lessons from the age of seven, setting up of international primary schools, compulsory language at post-16 and linguistic training for would-be teachers.
This week the Government offered "practical" measures, following warnings about a shortage of linguists and an overcrowded primary curriculum.
A minority of primaries offer languages at the moment. Nine out of 10 pupils drop languages at 16.
Steven Fawkes, president of the Association of Language Learning, said:
"Language colleges will give access to some pupils but not all. Regional champions are a way of paying lip-service to the idea of a big-hitting supremo who could raise the status of languages."
Harmer Parr, spokesman for the National Association of Language Advisers said the response was a series of stunts rather than a strategy.
A Department for Education and Employment spokesman said a working group would continue to take the strategy forward in consultation with the Nuffield team.
Anthony Tomei, director of the Nuffield Foundation, said: "We will continue to urge the Government on the need to recognise the importance of all languages and the importance of taking a long-term view."