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Mandarin 'should be available' for all English pupils

All secondary school pupils in England should have the chance to learn a less familiar language such as Mandarin, says Children's Secretary Ed Balls.

Mandarin has become increasingly popular in schools - with one in seven now teaching the subject.

Making it more widely available is an "aspiration" rather than a pledge - and could mean schools and colleges sharing specialist language teaching staff.

Mr Balls highlighted the economic importance of learning languages.

As well as Mandarin, he pointed to the growing importance of Portuguese for trading with Brazil, Spanish in Argentina and Bahasa Indonesia in Indonesia.

Emerging economies

"A growing number of schools are now teaching Mandarin and in the coming years I think we will see this subject sitting alongside French, Spanish and German as one of the most popular languages for young people to learn," said Mr Balls.

"In this new decade our ties with emerging economies like China will become even more important and it's vital that young people are equipped with the skills which they need, and British businesses need too, in order to succeed in a rapidly-changing world," he said.

"That's why we want all secondary pupils to have the opportunity to learn up-and-coming languages like Mandarin if they choose, either at their own school or a nearby school or college."

Modern languages have been struggling in secondary schools, particularly since 2004 when languages were made non-compulsory after the age of 14.

For the most popular languages at GCSE, French and German, take-up declined in England by 45% and 46% respectively between 1997 and 2008.

The lack of pupils studying languages in school has had a knock-on effect in higher education - with some university language departments reporting a shortage of applicants.

There have been particular concerns that the lack of language skills will harm the country's economy.

Conservative schools spokesman Nick Gibb said: "This government's policies have resulted in plummeting numbers of state school pupils studying languages at GCSE, and their own report confirms falling numbers in Mandarin too.

"There's a credibility gap between Ed Balls's rhetoric and what actually happens in our schools."

The government has been seeking to increase language learning in primary schools instead.

From this year, seven to 11-year-olds will be entitled to language lessons - and from next year languages will become a compulsory subject in the primary curriculum.