By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter
Estelle Morris says languages were a casualty of the anti-truancy drive
The scrapping of compulsory modern languages in England's secondary schools was a consequence of truancy crackdowns, the BBC has learnt.
Former education secretary Estelle Morris, who took the decision in 2002, says the aim was a flexible curriculum for teenagers brought back into school.
Compulsory languages for these returned truants did not seem "appropriate".
The number of pupils taking French GCSE has dropped 30% since it ceased to be compulsory for the over-14s in 2004.
The weakness of language learning in England has been a recurrent concern - with repeated warnings that the country lags behind international competitors.
Cilt, the National Languages Centre, says that England is "highly unusual" within the European Union in not requiring pupils to learn languages up to the age of 16.
But Baroness Morris has revealed the unexpected link between this lack of language learning and the anti-truancy drive launched by the Labour government when it came into office in 1997.
The number of pupils taking GCSE French has fallen sharply
To help keep pupils in school there had been a package of measures, she said, including breakfast clubs, homework clubs, mentors and altering the curriculum.
Head teachers had complained that long-term absentees were being dragged back into the classroom by the truancy crackdown - and that it was unrealistic to force these reluctant teenagers to learn languages.
"I think it is fair to say that the decision on languages was in large part a response to an inflexible Key Stage 4 [for 14 to 16-year-olds] and the wish to boost vocational courses which some might have seen as 'more relevant'.
"It certainly was hoped that one of the advantages would be a reduction in truancy," said Baroness Morris.
She says there was pressure to create a more flexible curriculum that would have space for more vocational courses and to engage the interest of teenagers.
"If we were to prevent young people 'opting out', schools needed to engage them more and the curriculum needed to be more imaginative and flexible.
"Vocational courses, perhaps offsite, ought to be possible. The problem was that given the time taken up by the compulsory curriculum this was difficult.
"There was also an argument that for many of these students, compulsory modern foreign languages at Key Stage 4 was not appropriate."
The decision was announced by Estelle Morris - now Baroness Morris - in 2002, when she was education secretary, and was implemented two years later.
The government had been under pressure to meet an ambitious target to reduce truancy by a third and had begun to take more drastic action, including the jailing of truants' parents, with the first imprisonment in May 2002.
To make secondary school relevant to the pupils being reluctantly brought back to the classroom the curriculum was made more flexible, including allowing pupils not to study modern languages.
The change still meant that pupils could choose to study modern languages, but it was no longer a requirement.
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School has changed so much in the last 20 years but mostly the ability to discipline teenagers is the biggest change
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Baroness Morris adds that "it certainly was never intended that all and sundry would drop studying languages".
Balancing this loss, the education secretary also announced the expansion of language learning in primary schools.
But the number of pupils studying modern languages at GCSE has been in decline.
The dropping of compulsory language learning beyond 14 came into force in 2004 - and since then the number of candidates for GCSE French has fallen by 30%, with 77,000 pupils taking the exam last summer.
A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said that a subsequent inquiry into modern languages in schools endorsed the decision to end compulsion.
"Lord Dearing's review of language teaching in 2007 was very clear - there should be no return to compulsory languages at Key Stage 4.
"A 'one size fits all' option for 14 to 16-year-olds does not engage them in learning a language.
"As recommended in that review, we are making languages compulsory in primary schools from 2011 - this will help instil an early love of languages that they can carry through to secondary school."