Leading article: Language of retreat

Whatever political fate awaits the Secretary of State for Education, Alan Johnson, he certainly got one thing right yesterday. In a speech to a London think-tank, he let it be known that the Government was reviewing its controversial decision to scrap compulsory language lessons for 14- to 16-year-olds. Ministers, he said, were "wondering" whether they had done the right thing.

Well, well - what a turn-up for the books! We have always argued that they did not get it right - from the very day, four years ago, the ambassadors of four leading European countries approached us to voice their concern about the "sad situation" of language teaching in the UK. All the evidence that has emerged since has only reinforced the view that the decision was wrong. This year's GCSE results - taken by the first age cohort to go through the system since the decision became voluntary - showed a dramatic decline in the take-up of languages.

French was taken by barely one in three pupils, compared with about three in four a decade ago. The take-up of German fell 14.2 per cent to fewer than 100,000 for the first time. This is a really scandalous tally, and one that shows how quickly a subject is dropped when ministers decide it is not essential.

It is true the Government tried to soften the impact of its initial decision by encouraging more language teaching in primary schools, and we are pleased that 10,000 youngsters - including eight-year-olds - have started studying for the new languages "ladder" designed to offset the fall. At this stage, languages are treated like music, with six different grades attainable. Pupils take a grade exam when they are ready, regardless of their age.

Praiseworthy though this initiative is, it has become increasingly clear that it does absolutely nothing to compensate for the reduced take-up later on. The most worrying aspect is that many schools - mostly state schools in the inner-cities - have already shed languages departments. They will probably find it difficult, and expensive, to recruit enough qualified staff to bring language teaching back even to its previous, often unsatisfactory, level.

We hope such pessimism on our part proves unjustified. But time is of the essence if another generation of pupils is not to be denied the opportunity to study a modern foreign language. And the very fact that Mr Johnson felt the need to broach the subject at all, however, surely suggests what the conclusion of his review should be. So why conduct a review at all? Why not just admit it was wrong to scrap compulsory language lessons and order their reinstatement without further delay.