Seanad debates

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Adjournment Matters

Modern Languages Initiative

5:00 pm

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, for waiting to take this final Adjournment matter. The modern languages initiative in primary schools is an issue that was brought to my attention this weekend, due to the plans introduced in the budget, unbeknownst to many people, to end the initiative.

This programme was introduced some time ago and has proven quite successful in fostering a knowledge and love of foreign languages among primary school children. As the Chair, the Minister of State and I are aware, the option was not available to us in primary school to learn French, German or Spanish, as happens in some schools in my area. As the Minister of State's constituency borders on my area, I know he is aware of the importance of ensuring that rural Ireland, in particular, has these opportunities. Looking at some of the jobs created in recent years, particularly in areas like Shannon and Galway, they have been in the telesales area for international companies. In the Shannon free zone, in particular, a number of companies provided specialist services through French, German, Chinese, Japanese and other languages. What has attracted these companies to the area has been the high quality second level education, particularly in the area of modern European languages.

Extending the modern language programme to primary schools was a great idea. Most other European countries teach at least one other language and most children leaving European primary schools have at least basic knowledge of two languages. In Ireland, students have Irish and English and that is all. While Irish is important for the formation of the character of students, the study of at least one European language is desirable. In my area of north Clare, there were two visiting teachers, visiting a myriad of schools in the west and east Clare areas. Those two teachers provided classes in Spanish, French, German, Italian and one other language. Not all kids blossomed in this area, but a number of them have shown enormous potential. I know of examples where kids have gone abroad with their families as a direct result of the knowledge and love of the language they learned.

I believe the axing of the initiative will save €2.5 million, but there are other ways this amount could be saved rather than eliminating the service with immediate effect, which is something about which I am concerned. Children who have been learning a language since September, will no longer have their classes after Christmas as the programme will not even continue for the full academic year. This is most regrettable as is the fact that the teachers in question will be made redundant immediately. I call on the Minister to review this. I am aware that other elements of the budget, particularly with regard to disability, have been reviewed. There is nothing wrong with conducting an examination and realising that decisions should be tweaked. This is one area I sincerely hope the Minister will tweak.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, Minister for Education and Skills.

I welcome the opportunity to outline to the House the decision taken by the Minister in the context of budget 2012 concerning the 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. The savings from this measure will go towards the cost of implementing the new national literacy and numeracy strategy, which is a key commitment in the programme for Government.

Since becoming Minister for Education and Skills, the Minister 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, to implement reforms in maths, Irish and science and to progress junior cycle reforms.

The modern languages initiative was a pilot scheme, involving approximately 500 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 from June 2012 was based in part on policy advice from a 2008 report by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, which has identified serious issues with curricular overload at primary level. The NCCA's advice recommended that modern languages should not be part of the primary school curriculum as an additional and separate subject at present.

The primary curriculum is being reviewed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment in the context of the national literacy and numeracy strategy. The focus of the review will be on how best to enhance children's learning in these areas, providing for a clear delineation of the learning outcomes required and integrating into the infant cycle the learning experiences from Aistear, the curriculum framework for early childhood education.

At post-primary level, targeted support is provided for 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, relative to other subjects, remains high at post-primary level. The majority of students are studying two languages, thereby developing core skills that will serve them well in future language learning. There are many opportunities outside the second level system for people to resume language learning.

Ending the scheme was not easy, but before the decision was taken the Minister gave careful consideration to the concerns about the teaching of languages. I again thank the Senator for affording me the opportunity to respond to the House on the matter.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. I am glad that I was wrong to state the scheme would be brought to an end immediately. It is welcome that it will continue until June 2012. However, I will continue to contend that the teaching of modern languages is important and that the earlier children are exposed to them, the better their chances will be of developing a love for them. Perhaps the Minister might review the decision. While I take on board the points and recommendations made to him and accept that he has a difficult job to do, perhaps the Minister of State might stress to him the importance of exposing children to modern languages at a young age. The Minister of State might also suggest to him that the teachers who find themselves out of a job at the end of this academic year should be redeployed in a support structure for second level students to broaden the church of languages available to them.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for his contribution and highlighting this issue which is close to my heart. As he pointed out, we need to prioritise our use of limited resources and make difficult decisions that will have problematic outcomes for those who have been employed as teachers under this initiative. There was a certain degree of inequity in provision, in that we were only able to roll out the opportunity to 500 of the 3,200 primary schools. We also needed to take into consideration the strong opinion expressed by the NCCA to the effect that modern languages should not be part of the primary school curriculum as additional and separate subjects. Under the programme for Government, we are strongly determined to eliminate illiteracy and innumeracy at primary, post-primary and further education levels. There is no better time to do this than early in a young person's education. The resources saved through the cessation of this process will be targeted at dealing with this issue. It will be money well spent and we will see positive outcomes in the years to come.

The Seanad adjourned at 5.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 14 December 2011.