A ROW broke out last night after parents said children were being robbed of top grades at a flagship North-East school.

Hummersknott School and Language College, in Darlington, has received a number of complaints from parents who say it is restricting youngsters in their choice of GSCEs.

Some youngsters have to take two languages when choosing their options for study for the two-year course.

Parents say they are being forced to drop stronger subjects because of the way the choices are laid out.

The school says its specialist language status means it has to meet targets for the teaching of foreign languages, which include French, German, Spanish and Chinese Mandarin.

It says that parents of children affected would have been aware of its application for the specialist language status, won in January 2000, at the time they applied to join the school.

One mother aid: "This all came as a surprise.

"It seems a ridiculous situation that some students may have to go for a language subject, especially something like Mandarin, even if they would only get a B in that, when they would get an A or A* in history."

Specialist status is awarded by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) in a number of subjects. Schools receive grants in return for specialisation.

Elaine Kay, of the National Union of Teachers, said youngsters were not able to explore their potential.

She said: "Pupils should be free to pursue choices which are in their best interests. This is not a choice, it is a diktat and could have a detrimental effect on long-term career prospects."

Ann Hughes, acting headteacher at the school, said that pupils choosing their GSCE options had to study at least one language and 50 per cent of pupils had to take two.

This differs from regular comprehensive schools, where study of a language for pupils over the age of 14 is no longer compulsory.

Mrs Hughes said: "We happen to believe that the teaching of languages is very valuable and we have to meet targets as a result. That is the situation."

She defended the teaching of Mandarin, saying it would be a vital skill in the future global economy.