Students shun languages in favour of vocational courses

Pupils accused of 'isolationist attitudes' as they abandon learning French, German and Spanish and switch to computer and IT studies
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The Independent Online

Headteachers have condemned significant falls in the number of students taking A-levels in modern languages as a tragedy based on "isolationist attitudes".

Headteachers have condemned significant falls in the number of students taking A-levels in modern languages as a tragedy based on "isolationist attitudes".

The drop in entries for French, German and Spanish was condemned yesterday by union leaders as entries for the three major foreign languages fell by nearly 11 per cent. French entries fell by 13.5 per cent, while those for German fell by 8.9 per cent.

The drop came as overall exam figures showed further evidence of the trend towards vocationally orientated subjects. Entries for computer studies and information technology A-levels were up by 11.4 per cent, accompanied by large rises in entries for computing in half-size AS-levels and work-related General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs).

There were also rises in A-level entries for subjects such as media studies, up 7.4 per cent, and psychology, where entries rose 5 per cent. Entries for maths, physics, geography and English, however, were down.

David Hart, general secretary of the NAHT, bemoaned the fall in language learning. He said: "Students are voting with their feet and dropping French, German, Spanish and other traditional subjects. The very significant drop in modern language entries is evidence of a European isolationist attitude."

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, added: "Modern language entries have been going down for some time, which is a tragedy.

"Languages, along with maths and physics, are seen as the hardest subjects. That's particularly unfortunate because they are the very subjects that the country most needs students to study."

But the software company Microsoft welcome the shift towards vocational subjects. David Burrows, the company's education group manager, said: "These results not only highlight the importance today's students are placing on IT computing skills, they also demonstrate the growing ability of schools to run these courses successfully."

Ruth Lea, director at the Institute of Directors, made her annual claim of "dumbing down" in the education system, a charge roundly rejected by heads and exam board officials.

Ms Lea said: "This is farcical. We've now got endemic grade inflation which is making it harder and harder for employers to discriminate between able and less well able students, and the universities are having the same problem."

But Mr Dunford retorted: "The rate of improvement year-on-year would be a matter of pride for any organisation or company, and it is deplorable that the Institute of Directors is claiming that standards have fallen.

"If one of their members' companies had achieved this continuous improvement, they would be showering them with praise."

Despite the increases in vocationally orientated subjects, entries for GNVQs, the vocational equivalent of A-level were down, possibly because of competition with other vocational qualifications.

Paul Sokoloff, convenor of the Joint Council for General Qualifications, which represents the A-level exam boards, said students were simply exercising their right to choose a broader range of subjects, and dismissed suggestions that one was "harder" than another.

He said sixth-formers were "selecting a portfolio of subjects that they see as relevant for today's world and for higher education and employment prospects. "Awarding bodies will continue to innovate and to provide qualifications to meet the needs of a changing society."