I read in a news article this week that the number of pupils studying French had dropped 45% in the last eight years, apparently thanks to a Govenment decision that it should no longer be compulsory to study a foreign language for GCSE. When I was at school, all of us studied French and the proficient linguists took Latin and/or German as well, though I'm not sure whether everyone took O level in it. But I've no idea about whether it was a standard CSE subject at secondary modern schools or not.
As with many news articles, I find, the interesting insight comes in the form of the comments other readers have been making. I'd certainly agree that with the focus in my day on translation and comprehension, the ability to actually speak and converse naturally in the language was not something that we aquired with any great ease or conviction: even at A level, the emphasis was on the literature rather than teaching us how to be naturally fluent. One of the things I enjoyed most about my brief period of study at Uni was practising, listening and speaking, in the language laboratory there.
As far as French being the 'obvious' choice went, in those days cheap foreign travel wasn't widely available and a day-trip or a week's holiday to the nearest European country was all a lot of people could afford. It was (and still is) one of the most widely-spoken languages, marginally more difficult than Spanish, but probably easier than German. I only did Spanish once a week for a couple of terms so I can't really remember much of it, but Italian - with my Latin background - I took to very quickly and easily. In terms of demand, there's a definite case to be made for learning Indic languages or Chinese, and while I was working at Nuneaton, we had an large influx of Polish workers as customers and so we had some little crib-sheets made with 'useful' phrases on to practice with. One or two staff went to night school: I don't know if any of the secondary schools were enterprising enough to teach Polish, but I somehow doubt it.