GCSE results will show further decline in languages

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The Independent Online

A further decline in the take-up of modern foreign languages will be revealed when GCSE results are published on Thursday. Figures will show the number of 16-year-olds taking French and German has slumped to its lowest level for more than a decade.

French entries will have more than halved since 2001 when 236,189 youngsters sat the exam. A similar picture will emerge in German, where numbers have already fallen by 44,822 to 90, 311. The only bright spot on the horizon is a growth in community languages, with more youngsters who have English as a second language studying their mother tongue at GCSE. Take-up of Urdu and Mandarin in particular is expected to have increased.

The figures will renew debate over the Government's decision to stop making languages compulsory for 14 to 16-year-olds. Critics will argue the decision has led to languages becoming an elitist subject with only the independent sector maintaining a level of interest in studying it.

Dr Mike Creswell, director general of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance - Britain's biggest exams board - said: "Fewer students are doing modern foreign languages. There is definitely a need there for something which reflects the level of interest and enjoyment to be in the subject."

The board is pioneering a foundation certificate in languages - which would be less of a commitment than a GCSE but offers a language qualification to a wider audience and could stimulate more interest in the subject among 11 to 14-year-olds. It will be offered in 2008.

Ministers are seeking to halt the trend after ordering an inquiry into the teaching of languages last autumn headed by Lord Dearing. They backed his recommendation that the subject should become a compulsory part of the primary school curriculum for the first time ever - from the age of seven.

Thursday's results, which are expected to show a further increase in the percentage of A* to C grades awarded, will also fuel a new debate over the future of the GCSE system itself. Many independent schools are now shunning it in favour of the international GCSE - especially in maths and science. The international exam eschews coursework and is modelled along the lines of the old O-level.

Others argue GCSEs will cease to have a role as the exam for all 16-year-old school leavers if ministers go ahead with plans to introduce a new compulsory participation age in education and training at 18. Kathleen Tattersall, chairwoman of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors, argues that instead of pupils being externally marked on performance in a range of subjects, they could be internally assessed instead.

However, Dr Creswell argued that as many youngsters will still be changing institutions at the age of 16 even under the new proposals, there is still a need to measure what they have achieved so far during their schooling.

Meanwhile, today's school leavers have been given top marks for their texting skills but employers have warned that their knowledge of the basic three Rs leaves a lot to be desired.

A survey by the Confederation of British Industry revealed more than half of employers are unhappy with basic maths and English skills, and many businesses have had to retrain teenagers in basics that should have been covered in the classroom.

Richard Lambert, CBI director general, said: "These technology-smart whizz kids are making a great impression with their expertise in IT and computing, which has translated well into the workplace and often gives them an edge over their bosses. The challenge ahead is for schools to channel that same enthusiasm into numeracy and literacy skills."