Analysis: Are 'easy options' letting Britain's students down?

The blunt answer is that he has not. A survey by the Centre for Information on Language Teaching published this year shows our provision was poorer than every other European country even before this latest slump.

Yesterday's figures of a 64,000 fall in entries at GCSE in languages will only add to the pressure on ministers to reverse their decision to make the studying of languages voluntary from 14.

They should also prompt a review of the GCSE points system, which has persuaded many schools to opt for General National Vocational Qualifications, deemed the equivalent of four GCSE passes, in an attempt to improve their league table position. A study obtained by The Independent this year showed nine out of the 10 most-improved schools in GCSE performance had opted to persuade their pupils to take more GNVQs.

It is, as Professor Alan Smithers, of the Centre for Education and Employment at Buckingham University, has said, possible for a pupil to obtain five A* to C-grade passes at GCSE by taking a GNVQ in health and social care and a GCSE in religious studies, neglecting maths and English altogether.

This is not to argue that it is wrong to persuade pupils to take GNVQs, merely to question how the decision to assess their worth was made.

Thomas Telford school, the city technology college with a comprehensive intake which regularly tops the GCSE performance tables, beating all the selective grammar schools, has used this route to boost performance. But it can argue that students' success in GNVQs has spurred them on to advances in other subjects. This year, 98 per cent of its pupils also achieved A* to C grade passes in maths and English.

GNVQs are being phased out by 2007, although their place is likely to be taken by applied GCSEs, covering subjects such as ICT, health and social care, journalism and learning for life and work. These are worth two GCSEs, so an applied GCSE in health and social care will still be seen on a par with a pass in maths and English.

The Government is making these core subjects a more central part of the league tables. In future, schools will be ranked on what percentage of pupils get five top-grade passes, including maths and English. This cannot come in too soon (a pilot is being mounted next year) but a more fundamental review of the system is necessary.

Otherwise, as Mr hart says, GCSEs "will not be operating in the interests of students, let alone the interests of this country" because schools will still be tempted to lure their students from core subjects to the study of what are considered easier options such as media and religious studies and psychology.