The drive to improve the take-up of Mandarin in schools is in danger of collapsing unless exams are made easier, says a leading private school headteacher who pioneered teaching the subject.
Anthony Seldon, the Master of Wellington College, says exam boards should adopt a twin-track approach to the subject, with GCSE exams that are easier and more accessible for UK pupils, rather than being aimed at native Chinese speakers.
He said that the rise in take-up in recent years was solely as a result of more native speakers taking up the subject and that the number of UK children opting to take it was dwindling.
Exam boards have refused to back his call, saying they did not discriminate between native speakers and UK nationals in other modern languages.
"I think that they're squeezing the lifeblood out of the subject," Dr Seldon told The Independent.
"Their inflexibility and intransigence and refusal to listen will result in pupils not taking the subject."
His plea comes at a time when ministers are trying to encourage more children to study Mandarin, acknowledging it will be essential to help Britain compete in the global market as China's economy grows.
Only last month, the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, said that the Government wanted to give every pupil the opportunity to take subjects such as Mandarin at school because of their importance to the economy.
Dr Seldon added: "Kids who don't attend a single lesson in the subject could walk into the exam and get an A* grade because they are native speakers, while others who have flogged away at the subject for three years cannot."
The approach he advocates is already used by the International Baccalaureate for modern languages, which has a separate paper for ab initio students, those who have no knowledge of the subject before starting the course.