Leading article: A new rung in the languages ladder

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The Independent Online

At last, some encouraging news about modern foreign language teaching. A new approach to it - being pioneered by the Oxford and Cambridge and Royal Society of Art (OCR) exam board - has had considerable success in encouraging children at primary school to start learning the subject. Under it, languages are treated like music, with students able to sit a grade exam when they are ready for it (whatever age they are). A total of 10,000 students, some as young as eight, have signed up for it - and more than one in four secondary schools are now preparing to offer it to their pupils.

So far, so good. This development could pave the way for the future - and ensure that those youngsters who do not intend to study for a GCSE or A-level in the subject have some grounding in a modern foreign language. Another spin-off could be that, once young people have started on this ladder (there are six bite-sized courses to be studied, each one leading to a new grade), they gain the confidence to pursue the subject further.

The OCR is to be commended for its courses - and Government ministers for supporting the idea. However, it will take a long time before the new Asset Languages ladder, as it is being inelegantly called, can recover the ground lost by the decision three years ago to drop languages from the compulsory curriculum for 14- to 16-year-olds. The fall in take-up at GCSE level - 13.2 per cent down in French and 14.2 per cent down in German - has led to many schools shedding language teachers. Some may have to look outside to the community to provide teachers for children who want to progress up the languages ladder - and may not have enough trained staff on hand to ensure quality teaching up to GCSE and beyond.

Two cheers, therefore, for the introduction of the new languages ladder. The third will only be given when the Government reverses its decision of three years ago and insists all 14- to 16-year-olds study a language. If ministers did that, we could even improve on the standards achieved before the decline, because so many young children would have a grounding in the subject through Asset Languages before they start studying for mainstream exams.