Leading article: We must not give up on foreign languages

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Three years ago, the ambassadors to the UK from France, Germany, Italy and Spain told this newspaper of their alarm at the state of language teaching in this country. Already, in 2002, they were finding it difficult to arrange language exchanges with British schools because so few pupils spoke, or were studying, a foreign language. They were speaking on the eve of a government announcement that languages were to become voluntary for 14- to 16-year-olds - a move they thought would further erode language provision in the UK.

How right they were. This year's GCSE results - the first since the decision to make foreign languages optional - show a catastrophic decline in the take-up of French and German, down 14.6 per cent and 13.7 per cent respectively. Next year, the situation is likely to be even worse as the full impact of the decision is felt in the two-year GCSE course.

We have always argued that the ambassadors were right in the dim view they took of the policy change, and it gives us no pleasure to record just how damaging its effect has been. The Government says it is encouraging more youngsters to learn languages at primary school - and will give every seven-year-old the right to learn a foreign language by the end of the decade.

This is all very well, but it is a totally inadequate response to its earlier error. Those who benefit from it will not be taking their GCSEs (if the exam still exists) until 2019. By this time, the supply of language teachers might well have dried up because so few will have studied foreign languages over the previous 14 years.

Instead of making the subject voluntary for 14- and 16-year-olds - and sending the signal to schools that, in a crowded curriculum, foreign languages were dispensable - there was surely a case for making a foreign language a compulsory element of all sixth-form studies. That is what happens with the International Baccalaureate - an exam which the Schools Minister, Lord Adonis, described in a BBC interview last weekend as a good option for sixth-formers who want breadth of study.

Would that he had carried through the logic of that argument to the Government's decision on exam reforms instead of rejecting out of hand the idea promoted by the former chief schools inspector, Sir Mike Tomlinson, for a new diploma to replace A-levels.

The headteachers' organisations were busy last night writing to the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, demanding that an immediate review of the languages decision. That would be a start. But what is needed is not less language-teaching, but more. Making a foreign language an obligatory part of sixth-form provision would be a far better investment in the future of this country than the current dismal acceptance of monolingualism.