Pupils can choose from 30 languages in online GCSEs

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The Independent Online

Schools will be able to offer their pupils GCSEs in up to 30 languages under an initiative taken up by 50 schools. Pupils will be able to learn a language even if no one else in the school wants to study it and there is no one to teach them.

It consists of an online learning package which allows pupils to study a language in their own time and by themselves. Education experts believe that it could help halt the slide in the take-up of languages which has seen a drop of 13.2 per cent in French entries for GCSE this year and 14.2 per cent in German.

"The beauty of it is you never have to say, 'No, you can't do that because there aren't enough students to make it viable'," said Dave Appleby, assistant head of Biddenham Upper School in Bedford, a 1,000-pupil comprehensive which is one of the schools conducting the scheme.

"Last year we had a couple of sixth-formers learning Japanese - I think it was because they knew some people who went to the Japanese school in Milton Keynes and just thought it would be a good idea."

Teachers at Biddenham also believe the package allows them to put the Government's dream of giving every child a curriculum tailored to their needs into action. It also means that high-flyers can sit exams early and move on to A-levels in their best subjects while still studying for their GCSEs in the rest.

Jan Mathes is a case in point. Jan, who originally lived in Germany, took his GCSE in German aged 13 and gained an A* grade. Now 15, he is studying for his AS-level. "I prefer studying this way to being with the rest of the class because you don't get any distractions," he said.

The package of 30 languages is offered by Rosetta Stone, an American company formed in the 1990s which now operates in more than 150 countries. It includes all of the traditional European languages, plus Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese - up to GCSE level and beyond.

It set up in the UK a year ago and offers its services to 50 mainly state secondary schools. The package can also be used to help young people who are struggling to learn English as a second language.

Biddenham was one of the schools which opted to make languages voluntary for 14- to 16-year-olds when it got wind of the fact that the Government was about to make that alteration to the national curriculum.

In some schools - mainly inner-city state schools - languages have withered and died as a result. However, more than 100 of this year's GCSE group at Biddenham are still studying for a language - the five most popular ones are French, German, Spanish, Urdu and Bengali. Nationally, barely one in three youngsters now takes a GCSE in French.

James Pitman, the managing director of Rosetta Stone, said: "In days gone by you would have got by just studying French and German, but we live in a global not just European market now and the languages of the future are Chinese, Arabic and Spanish. We can offer them."

Research in the United States has shown that boys in particular are more likely to persevere with languages if they learn online. In schools in the past, languages have traditionally been considered a girls' subject but retention rates among US boys studying Japanese online are double the rate of those using traditional learning methods.

Biddenham has set up an independent learning centre in the school where pupils can study online. They can also get help from adults in the community to teach them at home if there is no qualified teacher in their chosen language.

It will be well placed in the project to encourage youngsters to go back to language learning if Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, makes a U-turn over making languages voluntary from 14. Last week he revealed that ministers were having a "rethink" over the decision in the light of evidence showing masses of youngsters have deserted the subject. The minister's comments came as schools across Europe celebrate European Languages Day today.