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Education policy is like defence policy. It is always fighting the last war but one. Predictable woe has greeted the plummeting number of pupils studying modern languages, which have fallen by roughly 10 per cent in a year and German by one-third since 2010. Only Chinese and Arabic look reasonably healthy — I wonder if this might be because rising numbers of Chinese and Arabic-speakers are studying?

Pupils are not stupid. They take subjects they find relevant to their future lives. European languages are not that. Europe is universally adopting English as a lingua franca. Continental universities are increasingly English environments. In addition, translation, spoken as well as written, has (like maths) proved susceptible to computerisation. Those who need to learn German to live or work there, can do so in an immersion lab, faster, more efficiently and far more cheaply than by sitting in a schoolroom for an hour a week for years — the perfect way not to learn a language but to forget one. German should be a specialist skill for those who love or need it, and can be taught as such.

Like the current zombie cult of maths, languages are beloved of reactionary educators for one reason: they are easy to test, quantify and regiment. They are the raw material for education’s new Holy Grail, the league table. Challenge the usefulness of such subjects, and teachers fall back on the medieval saw, that “they train the mind”. They used to say that of Latin — and corporal punishment. They then switch and claim maths and languages pupils “earn more”. It never occurs to them that, as with Latin, successful pupils are those who know how to please their teachers.

Digitisation is clearly transforming education. It is also showing what computers cannot do, and good teachers can. It cannot inspire pupils with the wonders of the scientific world. It cannot guide them through the glories and horrors of Europe’s history. It cannot unfold the human drama of literature, or the full mystery of the global environment. A computer cannot teach the life skills of speaking, listening, debating, personal presentation and confidence.

The mad month of August gets ever madder, as the education system plunges deeper each year into the one thing that obsesses it: how many pupils and institutions did exactly how well in an exam. It is the greatest of political fallacies, to make what is measurable important, not what is important measurable.

Germany is Europe’s most important country of our day. Teach its history, revel in its culture, analyse the strength of its economy. Visits its cities and countryside — and see how much better they are planned and protected than Britain’s. In comparison, learning Germany’s language is not that important.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Simon Jenkins is a journalist and author. He has edited the Times and the London Evening Standard. His recent books include England’s Hundred Best Views, and Mission Accomplished? The Crisis of International Intervention.