If any aspect of our school system can be regarded as a disaster area, it is surely the study of foreign languages. And the Government's decision three years ago to make learning a foreign language voluntary from the age of 14 only made matters worse. The figures speak for themselves. The number of pupils taking French and German at GCSE has fallen by one third since 2001. Even if the dominance of these two foreign languages in our school curriculum can be criticised; these are the languages spoken by our near neighbours.
So it is with some impatience that we await the interim findings later this week of the government inquiry into language teaching, which is being conducted by Lord Dearing. Some advance reports suggested that an early recommendation would simply be to reinstate compulsory study of a foreign language up to GCSE, as a large constituency of academics and professional linguists would like. As we report today, however, Lord Dearing may stop short of proposing a complete about-face. One reason is the increase in the number of primary schools that teach a foreign language. The Government called for languages to be taught at primary level when it abolished compulsory languages from 14. A second is the view of some teachers that pupils should not be forced to continue with subjects for which they have little aptitude and even less interest. They argue that compulsion fosters disruptive behaviour and thus hinders those who want to learn.
Lord Dearing was asked to suggest ways of encouraging the take-up of languages in schools. One way - encouraging more schools to offer the International Baccalaureate - has already been announced by the Prime Minister. Another would be to introduce a compulsory language component for some of the specialist diplomas that are to be introduced. Such a requirement would be weighted towards the acquisition of a useable skill, rather than towards literary or other knowledge. The idea, already gaining acceptance, would be to stress the importance of language ability in travel and gaining employment.
Unfortunately, none of these gentler solutions is likely to have the desired effect of increasing the linguistic competence of young Britons. It is sad, but true, that there are times when nothing succeeds like compulsion, supplemented by force of example. If at least one foreign language is not to be compulsory up to age 16, perhaps a foreign language should once again become a requirement for university entrance, regardless of the proposed field of study. After all, unless the brightest are encouraged to see a foreign language as an asset, why should anyone else think it worth the effort?