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A Questionable Government Cut to Languages

The exorbitant amount of job alerts and job advertisements looking for graduates with one or more foreign language has become a common sighting for job seekers. A large percentage of unemployed graduates came from a school of thought who viewed learning a foreign language in secondary school as ‘boring’ and far from ‘necessary’.  This perception, coupled with languages not being compulsory in our education system resulted in a majority making great efforts to avoid languages for the leaving certificate.Roll on to 2012, and we have a critical shortage of language skills in Ireland. However, ask a primary school child who has been learning French, German, Spanish or Italian as part of the Governments 14 year modern language ‘pilot’ scheme and they will tell you how much they looked forward to their one and half hour dedicated to learning a new language every week and more than likely they will be able to greet you bi-lingually!Therefore, it comes as a shocking surprise that The Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative (MLPSI) was wound up in June, to save a meagre €2.5 million, without a thought to the potential language graduates it would have produced one day, not to mention well-earning tax payers. Also, in the government’s well-informed knowledge of present and future skills needs shortages, with languages being a prominent one; how do they justify withdrawing funding for such an essential language scheme? More than 500 primary schools throughout the State have been participating in the initiative – officially a “pilot” programme – since 1998 which provided funding for the teaching of French, Spanish, German or Italian to fifth and sixth classes.

Last August a national languages strategy published by the Royal Irish Academy called for the initiative to be integrated into the mainstream primary curriculum, as was strongly recommended by the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs back in 2005. However, rather than extending the opportunity of learning a modern language to all children from the age of 10, the decision was made to stop the scheme.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education and Skills, explained that the decision was made due to difficult economic circumstances and that the money being saved is going towards the implementation of a literacy and numeracy strategy, which is costing €19 million a year and will benefit all primary schools.

Deputy Micheál Martin, said: ‘The decision by the Minister for Education and Skills to abolish the modern languages in primary schools initiative was extremely regressive and short-sighted. After benefiting 550 primary schools and thousands of young children for 14 years, this positive initiative will shortly come to an end. The benefits of the scheme far outweigh its cost. In times of financial difficulty, initiatives such as this which provide excellent value for money should be kept in place rather than dismantled. A legitimate case can be made for expanding the programme in light of its value for money.’

In stark contrast, to our own Government, the British Government announced that all children are to be taught a foreign language from the age of seven, under reforms to their national curriculum. The introduction of compulsory language teaching in primary schools in England is aimed at boosting the numbers of students taking languages as exam subjects at secondary level.

School principals are quick to respond to the shocking cut, and they acknowledge that it is a step backwards where those who get exposure to a foreign language will be those coming from better socioeconomic backgrounds. It has been proven that giving children at a young age a taste for languages, often leads them to studying languages in higher education. IBEC have also come out to say that the decision is ‘unhelpful’, but hopes that the Government has an alternative plan for languages in the future.

It is a challenge to implement a programme for foreign languages at a time of financial crisis; but, to reap, you must sow. Failure to plant the seed for languages in young minds will continue the unfortunate cycle of a low up-take of languages in secondary school as a leaving certificate subject. This is regrettable as Ireland will possibly continue to fall behind other European countries when it comes to language skills and qualifications.