Return of compulsory French and German lessons set to be rejected

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The Independent Online

A report on the future of language-teaching in Britain's schools is to rule out a return to compulsory lessons for all pupils up to 16.

The interim report from Lord Dearing's inquiry, due on Thursday, is likely to dismay academics who have called on the Government to turn the clock back.

But amid fierce debate, even some language teachers now acknowledge that a U-turn would be wrong.

Lord Dearing, the former post office chairman, was asked to head the inquiry into language education policy after an alarming slump in the number of pupils studying French and German.

Since the Government decided to axe compulsory language lessons for those aged 14 to 16, the number of students taking French and German at GCSE has dropped by a third, from 482,140 in 2001 to 326,500 in 2006. Although the change in Government policy only came into effect in 2003, the decline started a year earlier as schools jumped the gun.

Fifty academics, including the heads of language departments at Oxford and Cambridge universities and the London School of Economics, have demanded that ministers reverse the decision.

Sir Trevor McDonald, who headed an inquiry into languages for the Nuffield Foundation several years ago, would like to go even further, and backs a call for the study of languages to be compulsory up to the level of university.

But Linda Parker of the Association for Language Learning, which represents language teachers, said: "Many of our members - many language teachers - wouldn't wish to return to compulsion. We would perhaps feel you can't force people to do things they don't want to do."

Experts expect Lord Dearing to back a boost to language teaching in the 14 specialist vocational diplomas to be introduced by the Government.

Theresa Tinsling of Cilt, the national languages centre, said that the Government may have got it "half-right" when it decided to make languages optional.

The accent now is on giving pupils more incentives to learn languages, by stressing both their importance in securing good jobs, developing cultural relations and having a fun time abroad.

Both Cilt and the association want to see more support for languages in the classroom, and insist they should be a compulsory part of some of the new diplomas. The case for languages to be a compulsory part of the leisure and tourism diploma is obvious, but they say it should also be required for engineering, in case students want to work abroad.

Tony Blair's pledge to give schools cash to allow more of them to offer the international baccalaureate (IB) as an alternative to A-levels will also give languages a boost, as they are a compulsory part of the IB curriculum.

Both teachers and ministers also want to start language instruction earlier. Children are at their most receptive to learning another language between the ages of three and seven, according to research.