The Government is cutting the funding for a modern language ‘pilot’ scheme for primary schools after 14 years, and the teachers, parents and pupils are not happy
THE WALLS of Prefab No 3 in the Holy Family Senior National School in Swords, Co Dublin, are festooned with French vocabulary posters, maps of France and a giant red, white and blue flag.
“Ici on parle Français” proclaims a notice stuck on a blackboard. But not for much longer.
After 10 years of teaching French to fifth and sixth class pupils in this school, Cathy McCarron was on her last day of work here one recent Friday morning because the Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative (MLPSI) is being wound up this month.
“I am so, so upset,” she says. A Parisienne with Italian roots who married an Irishman, she is passionate about languages and sees how the pupils both enjoy and benefit from learning French at a stage when they are more receptive and less inhibited than those of secondary school age.
Surrounded by material she has compiled over the years, she acknowledges the school has been lucky to have a dedicated room for the teaching of French – although the language permeates the whole building with tri-lingual signs dotted around the place. And the younger pupils are as likely to greet her in the corridor with “Bonjour Madame Cathy!” as the ones she is teaching.
Now McCarron has to pack all her stuff away. “You are talking about 20 boxes of things to go out of that room.”
The decision to abolish funding for the programme was, she says, as if the Government was telling the hundreds of part-time language tutors like her, who had developed resources in primary schools, that “what we did was for nothing – you can take it all and burn it”.
More than 500 primary schools throughout the State have been participating in the initiative – officially a “pilot” programme – since 1998. It provided funding for the teaching of French, Spanish, German or Italian to fifth and sixth classes for one and a half hours a week.
Fourteen years on, having a foreign language when leaving the education system has never been more important. 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 and the Council of Europe Policy Profile three years later. But instead of extending the opportunity of learning a modern language to all children from the age of 10, a decision was announced in the Budget last December that the scheme was being axed.
“We had to make a decision – would it be rolled out to all schools or not and, given our tough economic circumstances, it was one of those things,” says a spokeswoman for the Department of Education and Skills.
The money being saved – €2.5 million – is going towards the implementation of the literacy and numeracy strategy, which is costing €19 million a year and will benefit all primary schools, she points out.
“In a time of financial crisis you have to prioritise,” she adds, and the Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn, “was very much of the opinion that ensuring ever child who leaves the education system in Ireland is able to read, write and do basic maths was more of a priority than rolling out a pilot project of modern languages at primary school”.
As the MLPSI is being dismantled, Quinn’s counterpart across the water, Michael Gove, just last week 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.
At present, Ireland and Scotland are the only countries in Europe where learning a modern language is not mandatory at any stage of the education system.
Ronan Gillespie, a parent representative on the Board of Management at Holy Family school, is delighted his daughter Laura, who is in sixth class, has been learning French for the past two years but disappointed that the scheme is being dropped just as his younger daughter, Karen, was about to benefit in fifth class next September.
Unusually, he also got the chance to study French at the same age in primary school in the 1970s. He attended Hollypark National School in Blackrock, Co Dublin which, at the time, shared a campus with the French School in Ireland and was able to avail of French teaching.
It gave Gillespie a taste for languages. He went on to study French and German at secondary school, which he then combined with business at university level and has since gone on to learn Spanish and Italian.
“I have been lucky and I want my daughters to be that lucky – it just opens up the whole world,” he says. “Once you walk through the door of one culture, then you are ready to walk through the door of all cultures.”
The link between learning a language and culture is also stressed by Mickael Lenglet of Alliance Française. “When you are younger, you are more open-minded to that.”
For primary school children learning a foreign language is fun and something different, whereas for older children it is “more like a subject in school”, he suggests. “Sometimes they don’t understand it is actually a tool for communication.”
Belén Roza, education adviser at the Spanish Embassy in Dublin, says the number of students studying Spanish in Ireland has been increasing and the scrapping of the MLPSI is “very narrow minded”.
The embassy tried, she says, “without success”, to have a meeting with the Minister for Education to ask him to reconsider the decision. “We don’t want to interfere with your political priorities,” she says, “but it is a great loss for the students and their families.”
Scoil Barra Naofa Cailíní in Beaumont, Cork, which won the embassy’s “Spanish school of the year” award last month, is “devastated” at the ending of the programme, according to its principal Margaret McCarthy. “It is a real step backwards.”
Not only does exposure to one foreign language increase your ability to learn a third and a fourth, she points out, it is also “a lovely way of opening children’s minds to how people live in other countries”.
There was disappointment too at Glór an Mara National School in Tramore, Co Waterford, which has the distinction of being the MLPSI’s last “school of the month”. It was involved with the programme from the beginning, with French being its allocated language.
While parents have not been out marching in the streets, says principal Pat O’Mahony, they are disappointed. “It is the Irish way – people are just accepting the cutbacks aren’t they?”
With 300 primary schools having to let their part-time language tutors go – the other 200 used teachers already on their staff – O’Mahony expects some of those tutors will now offer language classes as an after-school activity, for which parents will have to pay.
“You will be back to the old story of those who can afford it, have it, and those who can’t, won’t. It depends on your area, your school; the upper to middle-class areas will be getting their French and Spanish and German and Italian. We wouldn’t be one of the richer areas.”
O’Mahony spent 12 years in the Middle East where he was very conscious that it was the English-speaking people – Australians, North Americans, British and Irish – who were the ones with only one language. “Everybody else had two or three or four – and this ain’t going to help any,” he adds.
The decision is “unhelpful”, agrees the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (Ibec). The problem is that the MLPSI was not mainstreamed, says Ibec’s head of education policy, Tony Donoghue.
He acknowledges that financially things are very tight, but says the Government needs to look at what and how languages are being taught and at least have a plan for the future.
“It has become a very serious business issue. You just have to look at the jobs that are advertised on the main jobs website and you will see that a lot of them demand a second language” – and that’s not Irish.
The National Parents’ Council Primary is also calling for a plan on how modern languages are going to be integrated into the primary school curriculum. Its chief executive, Áine Lynch, says the MLPSI was “far from ideal”, in being a “pilot” that lasted 14 years and not being available to all 3,300 primary schools.
However, she adds, “of course” children should be learning modern languages – “how that is done and how it is implemented in the current financial situation is a challenge but it is something that needs to be looked at. We are behind European counterparts on that.”
Schools that will no longer be funded to offer pupils a modern language from next September see a certain irony in the fact that the money is being diverted into “literacy”.
“Nobody in the department has explained to me how learning another language doesn’t make you more literate or how the study of a language doesn’t actually aid your learning of language,” says David O’Keeffe, principal of the Holy Family school in Swords.
“To turn around and say you are going to concentrate on numeracy and literacy by preventing people access to another language is absolutely ludicrous.”
As one-time general secretary of the Progressive Democrats, O’Keeffe was acutely aware, when working alongside other Europeans, of the weakness of the Irish education system in fostering foreign languages. When he returned to teaching, he regarded the MLPSI as a welcome move towards integrating modern languages in primary schools.
To see 14 years of effort and advancement being dropped “for very minor money” is, he believes, “not just an absolute educational disaster but also a political disaster. It shows us in a hugely negative light in terms of our attitude towards Europe and towards dealing with people of other nationalities.”
In a school where up to 40 per cent of pupils are foreign nationals, the provision of French has been “hugely beneficial to us”, he says. And the board of management is trying to find some way of retaining it.
“I don’t know how we are going to do it,” he adds. “It will have to be done from our own resources.”
Seefor more details while you still can . . .
SCHOOL'S OUT SO WHERE DO YOU GO?
If you have the means to send your child to language classes, what are the options for the under-13s?
The Alliance Française on Kildare Street in Dublin runs structured programmes for children from age one upwards. The Alliance also has centres in Cork, Galway, Kilkenny, Limerick, Waterford and a branch in Wexford. Seefor details or tel the Dublin office on 01 676 1732.
La Jolie Ronde, a franchise founded in the UK in 1983, offers French language programmes for children aged three to 11 and has a network of teachers in various counties around Ireland. Seefor location of classes.
Mayo Early Learning, based in Foxford, runs French classes for children from aged four as an after-school activity in various schools in the area. Seeor tel 085 8282000.
La Jolie Ronde also offers Spanish classes (see above).
The Instituto Cervantes in Lincoln Place, Dublin, runs courses for children from the age of six. Seeor tel 01 631 1500.
Two trained Spanish teachers are running weekly classes in St Gabriel’s Parish Centre, Clontarf, Dublin, starting again in September for children aged four to 12, at both beginners and improvers level. Tel 087 742 9202.
Spanglish Kilkenny runs classes for children from the age of three at its centre on Abbey Street in Kilkenny. Seeor tel 086 356 3306.
Dee Horohan is starting “fun Spanish for kids” with the LCF Clubs franchise from September, initially in her home county of Kilkenny, but also targeting Carlow and Waterford. Seeor tel 056 776 1848.
The German Language Centre in Blackrock, Co Dublin offers 45-minute classes suitable to children aged five and upwards. See german-language-
or tel 01 283 3500.
Divertitaliano, a not-for-profit association, will provide Italian classes for children on an after-school basis – minimum of six required for a group. Seeor tel 087 211 8819.
Claudio Lassarotto from Milan is available as an Italian tutor for groups of children, or private tuition, in the south-east – Wexford, Waterford, Kilkenny. Tel 087 669 0598.
Journalist: Sheila Wayman