GCSE Results: Government blamed for 'catastrophic' decline in numbers studying languages

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A "catastrophic" decline in the number of pupils studying modern foreign languages emerged in yesterday's GCSE results. Figures showed French and German suffered the biggest fall in candidates of any subject - with 13.2 per cent fewer candidates sitting French (236,189).

In German, the number of candidates dipped below 100,000 for the first time - plunging 14.2 per cent to 90,311 and bringing the language close to becoming a minority subject.

Heads and teachers' leaders were adamant that the Government was to blame for the decline - which follows three years of falling numbers - because of its decision to make the subjects voluntary for 14- to 16-year-old pupils.

The results showed a record pass rate again. The overall pass rate rose 0.3 per cent to 98.1 per cent; the number of youngsters getting five A* to C grade passes went up by 1.2 per cent to 62.4 per cent; and the percentage of A* and A grade passes rose by 0.7 per cent to 19.1 per cent. It was the decline in modern foreign languages that most worried heads and teachers' leaders. This year's cohort was the first for which the subject had been voluntary throughout their two-year GCSE study period.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the subject was "in freefall" - as many schools had now axed their languages department and could no longer supply the subject as they did not have the teachers or staff to deliver it.

David Willetts, the Conservative education spokesman, said: "Today's figures show a shocking decline in modern languages."

Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, demanded an urgent review of government policy to make languages compulsory again for 14- to 16-year-olds.

"Modern foreign languages are a complete disaster area," he said. "There is a massive drop this year in French, German and even Spanish and it is to do with the fact that there is no requirement on schools to teach them. It is catasthrophic."

Dr Dunford added: "This is a major concern and is putting youngsters at a disadvantage in the jobs market. Many schools are now shedding modern foreign languages teachers and I think we've now passed the point where we can reverse it." He said that the figures appeared to confirm that some schools were opting to put pupils in for exams which were considered easier so as to boost their rankings in exam league tables.

Mr Willetts said: "Government targets are driving schools to shut their doors to the world outside. We have a duty to students who are as committed and hard-working as ever.

"They must not be steered into GCSEs which look good as statistics but don't lead on to A-levels or vocational training that will allow them to fulfil their potential in the globalised world beyond the school gates."

Ministers have been concerned about the drop in the take-up - responding by issuing a directive to schools that they should aim for a target at least 50 per cent of pupils taking a foreign language GCSE or be penalised by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog. They also point out that - for the first time - they are recruiting trained language teachers to teach in primary schools to boost take-up from the age of seven.

The drop in take-up led to foreign languages recording the biggest pass-rate increase. The number of pupils getting an A* to C grade pass in French rose by 4.4 per cent, in German by 2.7 per cent and in Spanish by 3.2 per cent.

Dr Ellie Johnson Searle, director of the Joint Council for Qualifications, the umbrella group representing exam boards, said: "What we've got here are the more able linguists continuing to do languages and you can expect that to continue. We will continue with this pattern."

In maths and English, though, the rise in the percentage of youngsters getting five A* to C grade passes was lower than the average (0.9 and 0.7 per cent respectively, compared with 1.2 per cent). However, this was offset by a rise in the number of candidates opting for the subjects of 1.9 per cent in English to 721,762 and 1.2 per cent in maths to 750,570.

Richard Lambert, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said: "We must not lose sight of the severe problems which exist - around half of this year's GCSE students have fallen short of learning the basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills needed in the modern world despite 11 years of education."

In the sciences, the individual science subjects of physics, chemistry and biology showed a rise - with 19,000 more candidates taking them. However, this was more than offset by a drop of 29,000 in the numbers opting for the GCSE science double awards.

The subjects showing the biggest increases were statistics (up 32.9 per cent to 68,331) and media, film and TV studies (up 25.9 per cent to 57,521).

'Brotherly rivalry helps motivate us'

Nicholas Tayler. GCSE pupil. 16

A potential Olympic sailing star of the future was celebrating after gaining eight A* grades and two A's at GCSE.

Nicholas Tayler's success comes just a week after his brother and sailing partner, Andrew, 18, secured himself a place in medical school with three A grades at A-level and another A at AS-level. The brothers, who attend Portsmouth Grammar school, Hampshire, managed their grades despite taking time out to compete in sailing events.

They competed for the first time together in the Eurocat championships in France in April and came 27th out of 150.

Nicholas, from Warsash, Hampshire, said: "We had to give up a bit of sailing to do our exams. We've been cutting it down to the weekends only. Sailing in the Olympics is the dream, but I know I have to study hard as well to have something to fall back on if that goes terribly wrong."

He added: "There is some brotherly rivalry between us, which goes for sailing and in academic work. That definitely helps to motivate us."

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