The question of how to keep employers in supply with Irish people with language skills they need is being raised in a strategy being developed by the Department of Education. It is seeking views from the public and stakeholders on how to improve foreign language provision and uptake in schools and colleges.
A consultation document published by Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan points to changes in schools, particularly to falling numbers studying a third language in addition to English and Irish for the Leaving Certificate.
“An additional concern is that fewer students than in the past are now choosing to study two foreign languages, and in some schools it is not possible to do so. There is also a worrying tendency for some students not to take any foreign language at all,” the consultation paper says.
Employers’ body Ibec this month raised concerns about numbers taking Leaving Certificate French and German.
The department says French is predominant in languages uptake at second-level, due mainly to historical factors, but that the nature of employer demand for foreign language skills has important implications for the education system, graduates and employers.
It cites IDA Ireland evidence that most companies seeking people with language skills look for foreigners already living here, Irish people living abroad or who have studied linguistics abroad, newcomers or a combination of all these.
“Greater diversification of foreign language provision in post-primary schools is essential in order to meet the present and future needs of individuals and of society as a whole,” the Department of Education paper says.
The Post-Primary Languages Initiative (PPLI), set up in 2000 to diversify the range of subjects in schools, says having enough suitably-qualified teachers is one of the main challenges. It is working on short courses for junior cycle students in Irish sign language, Japanese and Russian, in addition to the Chinese language and culture course developed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.
Teacher unions and school groups have highlighted staffing cuts as a factor in the loss or restriction of subject options at second-level, with languages regularly said to be at risk.
Although Forfás called in 2012 for more focus on languages in primary schools, a long-running pilot which taught French, Spanish, German and Italian in 545 primary schools was shut down that year by the Department of Education, citing curriculum overload and saving requirements.
The third-level system is considered crucial by the department in developing foreign language skills, and up to 9,000 higher education students may be studying one, although only 3,400 had a language as a significant component or the main focus of their course in 2010. And despite key career prospects, a number of language programmes in the Springboard initiative to reskill graduates did not proceed due to low demand.