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Last Updated: Monday, 12 March 2007, 14:22 GMT
Seven-year-olds to take languages
Lord Dearing
Ron Dearing backs starting early
Modern foreign language lessons are to be compulsory for the first time in England's primary schools.

Education Secretary Alan Johnson backs the recommendation of a review by Lord Dearing that all children should learn a language from the age of seven.

This should happen by 2010, as part of the next curriculum overhaul.

There is no immediate move to reverse the decision to make languages optional beyond 14 - despite a sharp fall in the number of pupils taking GCSEs.

In 2004, pupils were allowed to drop languages in Key Stage 4, the two GCSE years.

Ministers said they were bowing to the subject's unpopularity.

Since then the numbers taking a GCSE qualification have fallen from about three quarters of the age group to half, with the biggest decline being in state comprehensives.


In response, ministers commissioned a review from Lord Dearing.

We need to demonstrate languages are both a useful skill and something to enjoy if we are to have better motivated learners
Alan Johnson
Education Secretary
His report says languages should be compulsory from seven to 14.

There should be a three-year "blueprint" of fresh measures aimed at bringing about a renaissance in secondary language learning.

These include a web-based "Open School for Languages", more "engaging" courses and further training for teachers.

An annual budget of 50m should underpin the teaching, the report said.

'Critical mass'

"I want languages to be at the heart of learning," Mr Johnson said.

"The earlier you start learning a language the better. Making language study compulsory from 7 to 14 will give pupils seven years to build up their knowledge, confidence and experience."

At my children's school they are taught basic French from age five. My five-year-old loves it
Deborah, Wiltshire

By that time, he hopes they will have built up "a critical mass of knowledge" and a love of languages.

The report does not say GCSE-level study should again be compulsory.

But it does expect a significant reversal in the decline, backed by Ofsted inspections and government targets.

And it says that if a recovery cannot be achieved, there should indeed be "a return to a modified mandatory curriculum" - albeit with a "slimmer" programme of study than used to be the case.

A Department for Education and Skills spokesman said: "Obviously if things did not improve, then we would have to look at the issue of compulsion again."

Graph showing decline in language study in recent years
The decline in secondary language study in recent years
Lord Dearing told BBC News that 70% of primary schools were already "on the way" to teaching languages.

"It is the best time to start learning a language because you do pick it up so much more easily.

"The rest of Europe is starting at seven, it's about time we did."

The Welsh Assembly Government said the results from its evaluation of pilot language lessons in primary schools had been very encouraging.

It was going to track the pupils' progress through GCSEs and beyond to see if they should be compulsory.

The British Chambers of Commerce said it was disappointed the report had not supported the reinstatement of compulsory language learning at Key Stage 4.

"We believe that the government's decision to make languages optional at this level was a mistake and not a reflection of the importance of language skills to the UK economy," it said.

The Confederation of British Industry called the report "an important step in the right direction" but expressed concern at the length of time it would take to bear fruit.

Shadow Schools Minister Nick Gibb said Lord Dearing's report did nothing to tackle the underlying causes of the problem.

"We welcome the recommendation that languages should be taught in primary school from the age of seven, but the government should have ensured that this was in place before its decision to downgrade languages at GCSE," he said.

Lord Dearing on why learning a language is important

Schools to get 50m language help
12 Mar 07 |  Education
Teach languages, primaries urged
14 Dec 06 |  Education
Schools 'ignored' languages edict
01 Nov 06 |  Education
Rethink on school language study
14 Sep 06 |  Education
Schools to get language targets
15 Dec 05 |  Education
School language decline continues
03 Nov 05 |  Education
Boys unwilling to learn languages
19 Oct 05 |  Education

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