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Letter from the i editor: Learning a foreign language

It’s unfashionable to listen to the head teachers of elite private schools, such as Anthony Seldon, biographer of Tony Blair and head of Wellington College.

But I would ask you to suspend any antipathy towards such institutions for a moment and heed his warning this week on languages.

Seldon warned a teacher conference that “Great Britain was rapidly becoming Little Britain” as the numbers of students studying languages at GCSE and A level plummeted in favour of “easier” subjects. The numbers are stark.

This summer 154,000 pupils took GCSE French, in 1995 350,000 did. The number taking German plunged over the same period from 129,000 to just under 61,000. Those taking these subjects at A level halved over the same period. Even the numbers studying Mandarin, self-evidently becoming more important, dropped.

Seldon’s “vicious circle” saw Government looking to schools for a solution; schools tell exam boards the subjects are too difficult (shorthand for “our league-table rankings will go down if too many pupils take them”); and then exam boards look to the Government for guidance. He is in favour of languages being taught within other subjects, and pleaded for Arabic, Mandarin and Urdu to be taught too. He stressed that our “uniquely bad” record in learning languages was a risk to our international competitiveness, and worse.

There is a solution. Learning a language is compulsory in the International Baccalaureate. Either more schools should be free to adopt the IB, or the GCSE system should change to more closely resemble it. Michael Gove has talked of making learning a foreign language compulsory at age 5. Labour talked of age 7. Enough talking. It’s – belatedly - time for “L’éducation! Bildung! Educazione!"

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