Richard Garner: Decline of modern languages rings alarm bell

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The Independent Online

This year's GCSE results show fewer pupils gaining modern languages qualifications after the Government's decision to make the subject voluntary from the age of 14.

French and German have suffered the biggest percentage drop in the number of candidates taking any subject: 3.9 per cent and 2.9 per cent.

And these are only as a result of schools jumping the gun after the Government's decision. The actual change in the national curriculum regulations does not come into force until next month. The Government says it is pointless to compel pupils struggling to learn English to take on French and German. The Government also points out that it has been active in persuading primary schools to offer languages to pupils, and is moving towards giving every child the right to learn a language from the age of seven. Catch them young and they will continue with the subject, they say.

They may be right but it will take nine years before those seven-year-olds come through to GCSE and we will be reconfirming our reputation as the language "dunces" of Europe. It would have been more sensible to have had the primary boost first before allowing pupils to drop the subject at 14.

There is one mitigating factor. The numbers taking Spanish are increasing - up 4.5 percentage points this year - although that still left 10,000 fewer language papers being sat this summer.

The drop in the pass rate last year from 97.9 per cent to 97.6 per cent has been halted and it is also encouraging to see a big increase in the percentage of top grade A* to C grade passes, up 1.1 points to 59.2 per cent. There is still a long way to go in improving the performance of the least able pupils, particularly boys who still lag 8.4 points behind girls in A* to C grade passes despite an improvement this year.

This year's results should mean the literacy and numeracy problems highlighted by the Confederation of British Industry this week (it said one in three employers was having to provide remedial classes for employees) are beginning to ease. English and maths are both in the top five subjects when it comes to recording an increase in candidates, another sign to be welcomed.

Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector who is conducting an inquiry into the education of students aged 14 to 19, is being asked by the exam boards to find some convincing solutions to the problem of boys' performance in the wake of today's results. He is expected to recommend a move away from coursework, said to aid girls' more methodical approach to exams. He should also address the decline in languages take-up in his report.