HOW ON earth can we reverse the decades of decline that have left Britain's children at the bottom of Europe's language learning league?
Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, is the man charged with the mission. His task is to ensure that the next generation leaves school equipped with a foreign language qualification.
A government blueprint, published yesterday, will concentrate on boosting language learning in the primary school sector by entitling all children aged seven and above to learn a language at school.
At the launch of the strategy, to be implemented by the end of the decade, Mr Clarke was asked if it would not be better to make learning languages compulsory. "I could imagine us getting into compulsion at some stage down the road but we are so far behind at the moment," he replied.
The current situation is dire. Only 20 per cent of primary schools in the UK offer language teaching to their pupils, compared with in Continental Europe, where the subject is compulsory from the age of six or seven in every country.
In short, a maximum of 600,000 primary school pupils out of 3.5 million learn a foreign language in Britain, and even in schools where the subject is on the timetable provision is patchy. State primary schools simply do not employ modern language teachers.
However, while this may contribute to British pupils' reputation as the "language dunces" of Europe, it does not explain the dwindling numbers who are taking up the subject at A-level and degree level.
Yesterday's blueprint spelt out the nature of the dilemma quite starkly. There were more than 500,000 entries for languages GCSEs in 2002, but at A-level this number had fallen to below 30,000 - fewer than 5 per cent of total entries. By the time you get to degree level, only 3 per cent of students are studying language-related subjects. For 10 years, these A-level and degree numbers have been falling. Last year, the number opting to study German was down 13.6 per cent, French 1.3 per cent and other European languages 12.5 per cent. (There was a rise in the take- up of Spanish by 11.4 per cent, but because so few study the language that meant only 32 extra students.) As a result, as revealed by The Independent last week, more than 70 per cent of universities have either abandoned language courses or slimmed down departments in the past two years.
As for secondary schooling, three years ago, David Blunkett, when he was Secretary of State for Education, gave schools the right, for some pupils, not to apply the national curriculum, under which every pupil must study a modern foreign language until the age of 16.
A disturbing survey by the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research, an independent charitable trust funded by government grants, reveals that the number of secondary schools where languages are compulsory has dropped by a third. Of nearly 400 schools surveyed, only 188 make the subject compulsory, compared with 288 last year.
David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "The decline has come about as a result of the lack of fully qualified language teachers and the fact that when they introduced the national curriculum they did not identify languages as a core subject."
According to Ofsted, the Government's education standards watchdog, the quality of teaching declines when a stand-in non- specialist teacher takes the class. This can have a knock-on effect on the number of youngsters opting for and taking an interest in that subject.
One of the reasons cited by Mr Hart for the shortage of language teachers is the opening up of job opportunities abroad for linguists as the UK develops closer links with European countries and the world economy becomes more global. "I think we missed a trick there," he said. "We have never got the message across of the employability of language graduates when it comes to the jobs market. …