Decline in students taking foreign languages for Leaving Cert

Fall comes despite Government strategy aiming to increase Ireland’s presence on the ‘global stage’ by boosting numbers studying languages

The proportion of students taking a foreign language for the Leaving Cert has fallen in recent years despite a Government strategy to boost language learning to help “Ireland excel on the global stage”.

Latest official figures show the proportion of boys doing a foreign language for the Leaving Cert fell from 72 per cent to 64 per cent in the period from 2017-2021, while the proportion for girls fell from 87 per cent to 82 per cent in that period.

A combination of factors such as teacher shortages, competition from new subjects at senior cycle and the removal of foreign language requirements for many third-level courses are likely behind the downward trend, education sources say.

Language Connect, Ireland’s strategy for foreign languages in education (2017-2026), aims to increase the uptake of foreign languages in the wake of Brexit. In particular it seeks to increase the number of students sitting two languages for State exams by 25 per cent.


The number of second-level schools offering at least two languages climbed from 72 per cent to 76 per cent between 2017-21, significantly behind the Government’s target.

Where students are studying a foreign language, French remains the most popular, but others are gaining ground such as German, Spanish, Italian and Polish.

The figures are contained in Education Indicators for Ireland 2022, which also shows that more students than ever are completing second level.

School completion rates at post-primary climbed to a new high in 2021, with 92 per cent staying in school until the Leaving Cert. The proportion of students completing second level at disadvantaged – or Deis – schools has been growing (86 per cent last year) and the gap with other schools is narrowing.

The proportion of school-leavers progressing on to higher education has also increased over recent years. Some 64 per cent of school-leavers – one of the highest rates in Europe – went to a university or college last year.

However, the proportion opting for further education and training options – such as post-Leaving Cert courses or traineeships – has fallen to 22 per cent, a 4 point drop since 2017. This is despite government policies aimed at placing less focus on the CAO points race and promoting more hands-on learning options.

Notwithstanding this, total enrolments in the further education sector – which includes mature learners – have grown significantly, while the number of apprentices increased from some 19,600 in 2020 to some 24,200 by the end of 2021.

There is still evidence of a social divide, meanwhile, in progression trends to university. A lower proportion of school-leavers in Deis schools went to higher education last year (43 per cent) compared to non-Deis schools (69 per cent).

Elsewhere, the pupil-teacher ratio at primary level has reached a new low and average class sizes have fallen to 23 pupils. The total number of teachers has risen by more than 7,800 since 2017, to some 72,000

In a statement, Minister for Education Norma Foley said it was “heartening” to see a number of key indicators continuing to trend in a positive direction, particularly the pupil-teacher ratio and retention rates for Deis students. “We will continue to work to further address these areas and ensure that there is progress right across the education sector.”

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris said the findings demonstrated the “broadening of our education and training offerings to allow learners to engage with, and continue, their education and training journey in a way that suits their individual learning styles and life stages”.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent