New rules in the way two of the largest minority languages - Urdu and Chinese - are examined could lead to a drop-off in GCSE entries, experts have warned.
Language departments in secondaries will now have to find their own markers for speaking exams in the GCSEs, which used to be marked externally.
The changes were made by the previous government following recommendations by the organisation that became the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) on how to bring all foreign languages into line.
Previously, Urdu and Chinese GCSEs - along with Arabic and Japanese - did not require an oral test. Now a speaking unit is required, as with more mainstream languages such as Spanish and French.
The reforms will cause problems for many of the schools that enter pupils for the GCSEs, as most do not actively teach the subjects. Under the new rules it will be compulsory for speaking exams to be taken at the school, marked by a teacher and sent to the exam board for moderation.
Having trained teachers on site is not something schools have had to worry about in the past, as most pupils already speak the language and learn the GCSE syllabus at home or at a supplementary school.
Instead of a written exam, pupils will carry out controlled assessments - a type of monitored coursework.
One south London teacher, who teaches Urdu to pupils from four or five schools, but did not want to be named, said: "I can see a lot of problems with this. I think it is about cutting down on the examiners, so all the work is being done by the teachers and the examination boards just have one person moderating.
"The problem is that these languages are not like French or Spanish, where teachers are permanently in schools and the subject is in the timetable. I think these changes will mean fewer people will take Urdu."
Dr Jim Anderson, a languages in education lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, also attacked the change. "In spite of rhetoric about inclusion and plurilingualism, this situation reflects the lack of importance attached to recognising and supporting the first language skills of our bilingual learners.
"The new format of the exam may be seen as positive in some ways, in particular the inclusion of an oral component. However, without appropriate support, it may well prove counterproductive and deprive some students of the opportunity to gain a qualification."
But another Urdu teacher and GCSE speaking examiner in the north of England disagreed. "We have had recorded tapes where (students were speaking to) 'parents or volunteers' who have not followed the mark schemes," he said.
"In fact, they have frequently performed worse than the candidates. As a result, these candidates have suffered and have lost out on higher grades in spite of the fact that the candidate's Urdu is excellent.
"It is very important that the examiner is someone who has had training in the conduct of the test."
The QCDA said the lack of trained teachers meant exemptions to the new rules had been applied to Arabic, Bengali, Dutch, Modern Greek, Gujarati, Modern Hebrew, Japanese, Panjabi, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and Turkish.
Urdu and Chinese were included because of the "significant size of entries". But in the last three years, Polish has become the second most popular community language, with 4,087 entries in 2010, compared to 5,018 in Urdu and 3,648 in Chinese.
Ofqual is now responsible for deciding which languages are exempt.
This puts up barriers to learning
This is inequality exemplified. It is still the case that the majority of the candidates are from community language schools.
Imagine a class of GCSE students attending different schools; one (complementary school) teacher will have to spend their own money travelling to all the different schools to administer the oral assessment to all hisher students. Many of the teachers work full-time during the week, so they have to take time off work in order to do this.
There is also the controlled writing assessment - this requires students submitting their two best pieces of writing done under controlled conditions, but with all sorts of criteria.
As with the controlled oral assessment, there is a lot of training required in order for teachers to be able to prepare their students properly. It is of real concern - talk about putting up barriers.
The author is a local authority inspector and Mandarin teacher.