In an interview yesterday, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, expressed concern at the sharp decline in the number of students taking exams in foreign languages. Mr Gove also said that his department's forthcoming White Paper will include a new "English Baccalaureate" qualification, which will be awarded to all pupils who pass at least five GCSEs, including one foreign language.
Mr Gove's recognition of the problem is welcome. This newspaper has long argued that the decline in the study of foreign languages in our schools is deplorable. And it is children at state schools who are being let down the most. Private schools still tend to make foreign languages compulsory for their pupils up to GCSE level. But will Mr Gove's idea of a Baccalaureate help rectify matters?
The idea seems to be to nudge schools and students towards placing a higher value on foreign languages. If employers and universities come to regard the Baccalaureate as an indication of educational quality, that should provide an incentive for children to study languages and for schools to channel resources in that direction.
It is certainly worth a try. But the proof of this pudding will be in the eating. If the downward trend for languages is not reversed in the coming years, Mr Gove needs to consider more direct action: re-introducing the requirement for all pupils to study at least one language at GCSE, which the previous Government foolishly removed. The decline in languages started at the beginning of the decade, but accelerated when Labour made the subject voluntary in 2004.
Languages are not for everyone. Some teachers argue that, for some hard-to-reach pupils, language lessons are inappropriate and a waste of time. But the solution for the minority of children who would not benefit from such lessons is to allow them to opt out at GCSE level. The presumption that the majority of children will reap rewards from being exposed to at least one foreign language at school is surely the right one.
Mr Gove needs to focus his energy on boosting languages at primary school level too. Although the previous government made a colossal blunder in making foreign languages optional at GCSE, its proposal to require all children to learn a foreign language from age 7 was laudable. The problem was that this half of the Labour administration's reform never made it into law. If Mr Gove is serious about reversing the decline in the study of foreign languages in Britain's schools, he needs to complete what his predecessor started.