Leading article: The insularity of our national curriculum

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The Independent Online

It was another record year for GCSE results, with congratulations due to all concerned. Particularly welcome was the large rise in pupils taking individual sciences. That is a highly positive sign and one which, it must be hoped, will lead to more students taking science to A-level and beyond. But there was also a black spot in these results, as there has been for several years.

While maths and science now appear to be on the rebound, the figures for foreign languages offer no such cheer. Entries for French and German are down again, as are entries for languages overall. It is true that more pupils are taking languages such as Mandarin, Polish and Portuguese that have not been staples of the school curriculum, but the interest in foreign languages generally, and the opportunity to learn them – two strands which are mutually reinforcing – remain in serious decline. Of the languages traditionally taught in schools, only Spanish has shown a slight increase.

Optimists argue that the fall in take-up of languages generally is slowing. But the numbers now taking a language to GCSE at all are so comparatively small that there is not, realistically, much further to fall. In most state schools in England, only a minority now attain an A* to C grade in even one foreign language. Compared with almost any other European country, this is nothing short of a disgrace.

Some will be tempted to blame what they see as the insular outlook of young people in this country. But that would be not only unjust but quite wrong. In many ways, today's younger generation is more internationally aware than any before. No; most of the blame must be placed squarely on the last government for making foreign languages optional after 14, before the supposed quid pro quo – foreign language teaching in primary schools – was anything like in place. Nor has the new Government given any hint of wanting to reinstate compulsory language study to GCSE.

Making languages optional at 14 has had several consequences, each as predictable as it is regrettable. The first was to signal that an acquaintance with even one foreign language was a luxury rather than a necessity. The second was to reinforce the impression that languages were difficult, and so to be avoided, by pupils and schools concerned about scores and league tables. And the third was to encourage schools to scale down language teaching and divert resources elsewhere.

There was a fourth result, too, which was to widen the gap between state and independent schools. While languages slid down the pecking order in state schools, they retained their place in the independent sector. Hence the conclusion that those educated at state schools now risk being locked out of senior jobs in business, where a foreign language is deemed an asset.

It can, of course, be hard for schools to convince pupils that a foreign language is worth working at, given the currency of English around the world. And ministers have argued that multicultural Britain has a relatively large bi- and tri-lingual population whose skills are under-recognised and under-used. It is true that the country is not as monolingual as it seems. But those skills should be treated as a bonus, not an excuse for schools to abandon language teaching for the rest.

The point is that if schools do not introduce pupils to foreign languages, who will? Nor should the value of a foreign language, even to a native English-speaker, be in doubt. Unusually, we now have a senior member of the British Government who is multilingual. One glimpse at the reception accorded to the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, when he speaks to foreign counterparts in their own language should suffice to show the transformational effect. A foreign language is an asset; it is high time we recognised this and set language teaching far higher up our national scale of priorities.