State schools in predominantly white areas are putting Arabic lessons on the curriculum for the first time as students show increasing interest in understanding the Middle East.
Mandarin is also growing in popularity as young people opt to study languages which they believe may help their future careers, the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust said yesterday.
Six specialist language colleges have put Arabic on the curriculum and are also opening their classes to pupils from other schools.
Many schools have traditionally offered Arabic classes but normally as part of an after-school programme and usually only in areas with a large Arabic speaking population as the courses have been aimed at native speakers who want to improve their formal skills. However, some state schools are now making Arabic compulsory for their mainly white British pupils.
Alison Sykes, assistant head of St Peter's School in Exeter, introduced compulsory Arabic lessons for all pupils three years ago. "It's really about getting them to understand a different culture and learn something about a part of the world that is very much in the news," she said.
Every pupil at St Peter's School now does a term-long taster course in Arabic when they join the school aged 11 as part of its citizenship programme. All pupils then take a refresher course as 15-year-olds which the school hopes will encourage them to choose to study Arabic GCSE.
St Peter's has linked with a school in Basra in Iraq so that pupils can exchange e-mails and letters. A group of 15-year-olds also spent a fortnight in Iran last year. Mrs Sykes said: "It has enhanced their understanding of international events and given them an understanding of a very different culture that they would not normally have had."
There are 216 language colleges - state schools that receive extra government funding to specialise in languages and spread good practice to other schools.
Jennifer Jupe, director of specialisms and vocational networks at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, said: "I think that young people's choices have been affected by the news agenda. They know about the tensions in the Middle East and also the influence and strength of some Middle Eastern economies.
"Part of helping young people understand these tensions is understanding the culture and language of the region."
There has been growing concern about the overall state of language learning in the UK as the numbers of pupils taking the subject at GCSE and A-level has plummeted. The Government has now ordered a review of its controversial decision to scrap compulsory language lessons for 14 to 16-year-olds.
Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, admitted last month that ministers were now "wondering" whether they had made the right decision, adding: "We're just having another rethink about that."
This year's GCSE results showed an alarming drop in the number of candidates studying languages - French fell by 13.2 per cent since last year to 236,189 entrants and German went down by 14.2 per cent to 90,311. Even Spanish, which has shown a rise in recent years, fell by 0.5 per cent to 62,143. This follows years of decline - the take-up of French has almost halved in a decade.
Specialist language colleges warned that there is a big divide between those schools which are committed to language teaching and those that are not.
The Centre for Information on Language Teaching has found that two thirds of state schools have dropped compulsory language teaching - while 97 per cent of independent schools still insist it should be compulsory up until the age of 16.
David Mansfield, chairman of the language college steering group and headteacher of Southend High School for Girls, said: "If we are not very careful, languages could become the new Latin - just for the gifted and talented."Reuse content