Tuesday, 12 June 2012
Topical Issue Debate
Modern Languages Initiative
The decision by the Minister for Education and Skills to abolish the modern languages in primary schools initiative was extremely regressive and shortsighted. After benefiting 550 primary schools and thousands of young children for 13 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.
This decision makes no sense, whether culturally, linguistically or economically. Does the Minister realise that foreign multinationals such as Google and PayPal are crying out for young Irish graduates with strong foreign language skills or that Irish-owned companies need personnel who can market Irish goods abroad? The UK Secretary of State for Education is due to announce this week that it will be compulsory to learn a foreign language from the age of seven as part of a new draft national primary curriculum in that country. The British Government recognises the importance of developing language skills from a young age. However, our Minister, Deputy Quinn, wants to take the opposite policy direction to that taken in other countries by dismantling all the progress made to date.
The initiative has been operating successfully since I first launched it in 1999 as Minister for Education and Science. It is recognised by the Council of Europe as forward looking and thousands of children and young people have benefited over the years by learning Spanish, French, German or Italian. It has helped to bring about greater diversity in the language capacity of students and experts recognise that it is easier for students to develop language skills when they do so at a young age. It has fostered positive attitudes towards language learning and the response among teachers has been positive.
Since announcing the cut in budget 2012, the Minister has failed to provide a rationale for his regressive decision. On foot of a freedom of information request to the Department of Education and Skills for details on the research or impact analysis carried out prior to taking the decision, the Department was not able to provide me with any material and simply stated that the budgetary decision was based on an outdated 2008 NCCA report entitled Modern Language in the Primary School Curriculum: Feasibility and Futures. This report did not in fact recommend ending the modern languages in primary schools initiative and the NCCA supports the initiative and believes it should be continued. Only two weeks ago, the NCCA published three new research reports to support the development of a new language curriculum at primary level. One report referred to the modern languages in primary schools initiative and recommended the introduction of an integrated language curriculum to ensure language skills are transferred effectively from one language to the other, whether that is English, Irish or another modern language. It stated that when children develop literacy skills in Irish, English or another language they not only learn how to read and write in a particular language but also develop a common underlying proficiency that enables the transfer of literacy skills and learning strategies to other languages.
The report's recommendations clearly show the folly of the Minister's approach to literacy, language learning and the modern languages in primary schools initiative. It demonstrates a lack of understanding on the part of the Minister of the positive and complementary role that languages can play in developing literacy skills among primary school children. The Minister must heed the most recent NCCA reports and ensure we develop an integrated language curriculum where language learning supports the development of literacy skills across all languages. It is clear from the NCCA's research that there is no justification for abolishing this important and cost effective initiative. It is time he recognises that he is wrong and reverses his decision immediately.
I am taking this topical issue on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills. I thank Deputy Martin for raising the issue and welcome the opportunity to clarify the decision taken in the context of budget 2012 on ending of the modern languages in primary schools initiative. As part of the budget 2012 decisions that have been announced, the modern languages in primary schools initiative will cease at the end of the 2011-12 school year. Since becoming Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn has spoken repeatedly about the need to raise educational standards. In terms of curriculum reform the priorities in the period ahead are to strengthen achievement in literacy and numeracy, implement reforms in maths, Irish and science and progress junior cycle reform.
The modern languages initiative was a pilot scheme which involved approximately 550 schools and had been operating since 1998. It has not been possible for other schools to join the pilot project for a number of years and the way in which it operated was not capable of being rolled out to all 3,200 primary schools. The decision to end the scheme was based in part on policy advice from a 2008 report by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment which identified serious issues with curricular overload at primary level. The NCCA recommended that modern languages should not be part of the primary school curriculum as an additional and separate subject at present. The advice on curriculum overload predated the wake up call on literacy and numeracy triggered by the PISA results. The Minister is taking that advice on board, with particular regard to the demands on time that will result from a heightened focus on literacy and numeracy.
The primary curriculum is currently being reviewed by the NCCA in the context of the national literacy and numeracy strategy, Literacy and Numeracy for Learning and Life. The 17% of schools currently involved in the initiative faced greater time demands than others in a crowded curricular space and should now be better placed to deliver under the strategy. The focus of the review will be on how best to enhance children's learning in these areas, provide a clearer delineation of the learning outcomes required and integrate into the infant cycle the learning experiences from Aistear, the curriculum framework for early childhood education.
At post-primary level targeted support is provided to schools to enable them to diversify language provision, with a particular focus on Spanish, Japanese, Russian and Italian. Other languages taught at second level include French, German and Arabic. Participation in foreign languages remains high relative to other subjects. The vast majority of students are studying two languages and are therefore developing core skills which will serve them well in future language learning over their lifespans. There are also many opportunities outside the second level system for people to resume language learning.
I am extremely disappointed by that dishonest response. It is not good enough to blame PISA for this. The vast majority of the 550 schools participating in the initiative do not face problems with numeracy or literacy. Stop trying to pretend that we are getting rid of a good scheme in order to introduce a broader literacy and numeracy programme. That is the kind of dishonesty that drives people mad. All the official speak dressed up in this response is just that. It is stupid, wrong and dishonest to end the initiative. The Minister needs to cop himself on. Last week he tried to argue that he never bought a German car in German to justify a claim that we do not need to teach German in our schools.
What the hell is going on in the Minister's office or in the Department? The initiative is no longer a pilot scheme. These schools showed initiative and they were not concerned about curriculum overload. The Minister of State should not bring up PISA, in which regard different issues arise. It appears that the Minister wants to use PISA as a cover to dump on education, teachers and standards. We are well aware of the issues that affected PISA outcomes, such as dramatic changes in the population and the number of non-English speakers who have entered the education system in the last decade. This is a dishonest approach. The €2.5 million involved supported 550 schools which showed initiative in introducing children to languages such as Italian, Spanish, French and German. All of us know that if children are introduced to learning at an young age they will benefit as a result. It a disgraceful educational and cultural decision and it is crazy from an economic perspective.
The Minister of State will speak about exports and markets. Do we not know that Spanish is spoken by half of the world, that Germany is the biggest importer of Irish pork and that France is a significant consumer of Irish seafood? As far as we are concerned, we do not give a damn whether young children learn French, Spanish or Italian. This is a very dishonest response and it is time to stop insulting people with arguments of this kind, camouflaging what the Minister of State is up to and trying to give other reasons and rationale for incorrect decisions. The decision should be reversed and it is within the capacity, and the budgetary capacity, of the Department to do so. Is there an agenda of which we are not aware? Was someone in the Department out to get this initiative? The logic of what has been decided escapes me and it needs a genuine review by the Minister of State.
Deputy Martin can only acknowledge that the PISA results were a wake-up call for the country. Other jurisdictions had similar challenges to Ireland in coping with children of varying languages and nationalities and those countries achieved higher PISA results. It cannot be explained by that one issue. Given the priority literacy and numeracy represent for this country, the Minister acted on the advice about curricular overload. He could not justify the continuation of the modern languages initiative in existing schools or its expansion to 3,200 schools, even if funding was not an issue.
The focus is on the efforts needed throughout the school system to underpin the literacy and numeracy strategy. We are facing challenging times as a country, particularly in the education sector. Given the scale of our economic crisis, adjustments had to be made across all areas of the public sector and public spending. Despite the challenge, the Government has sought to do this in as fair a way as possible. The Government had to take difficult decisions in the budget, including the decision to end this initiative. To the greatest extent possible, the Government has shielded front line services and does not plan to review the decision to end the modern languages in primary schools initiative.