Schools ditch language teaching

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Almost a third of schools are planning to drop compulsory language lessons for pupils over 14, according to a survey.

Almost a third of schools are planning to drop compulsory language lessons for pupils over 14, according to a survey.

Far more secondary schools in inner-city areas are likely to make the move, raising fears that learning languages such as French and German will become an elitist activity confined to middle-class areas. Educationists will see the findings as crushing hopes of persuading the Government not to make the subject optional from 14 as part of its review of secondary schooling.

The figures, from a survey of nearly 300 schools by the Association of Language Learning, which represents language teachers, showed that 30 per cent planned to abandon compulsory language lessons from 14. Others were planning to offer the subject for a token hour a week.

The picture emerging from comprehensive schools was even more alarming, though, as 20 per cent of responses were from either independent schools or specialist language colleges that will continue to give the subject a high profile. On a national basis, the survey's findings suggest that more than 1,000 schools will drop modern languages as a compulsory subject at 14.

Terry Lamb, the association's president, said: "We're talking about getting on for half the schools that are not independent or language colleges making it optional. I suspect there will be parental pressure in middle-class areas where people recognise languages will be a key skill for better jobs to continue to make it compulsory. In areas where languages are not particularly valued and parents don't travel abroad much, it will be decimated. It will become an elitist subject."

Sir Trevor McDonald, the ITV broadcaster who chaired an inquiry into language teaching for the Nuffield Foundation, said: "We should all be very concerned. Whichever career path children choose to follow, they are going to need the skills that make them employable in a world where recruitment is increasingly global."

The survey of heads of language departments gave two main reasons for the schools' decisions: the difficulty in attracting qualified staff to teach languages and the fact that language GCSEs were seen as harder subjects for some pupils, thus making it less likely that pupils would score at least a C-grade pass and schools register highly in exam performance tables.

Damian Green, Tory education spokesman, said: "This should not be happening. This is a consultation paper and this proposal is one of the most controversial parts of it. Many schools do have a severe problem in recruiting language teachers, so the Government should be working hard to deal with this problem."

A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "That proposal is still out for consultation. Schools can't make the subject non-compulsory until there is a formal announcement."

Under proposals in the Green Paper on school reforms, a decision to make the subject optional would not come into effect until September 2004. Individual pupils would retain the right to have language tuition.

Schools would still be able to make language lessons for pupils aged 14 to 16 compulsory. Professor David Hargreaves, an adviser to Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, said: "A school could put modern languages as part of its compulsory curriculum as a result of the Green Paper. It is for heads and governing bodies to decide what is appropriate for the schools and their curriculum."

In February, the German, Italian and Spanish ambassadors spoke out in an interview with The Independent about the "sad" standard of language teaching in the UK.