Some secondary schools say they will be forced to reduce pupils’ access to foreign languages due to difficulties recruiting qualified teachers, according to a Department of Education audit.
The report also shows evidence of a class gap in access to language tuition, with students in fee-paying secondary schools much more likely to have a choice of languages to study.
By contrast, students in non fee-paying schools are more likely to have access to fewer languages, while thousands of pupils are not studying any foreign language at all for the Junior or Leaving Cert.
The findings are contained in an department audit of foreign language provision which examined more than half (55 per cent) of the State’s post-primary schools during the 2017/18 school year.
When schools were asked to comment on language provision in their school, some said the issue of teacher supply had reached “crisis point”.
“We are considering dropping a language as we are worried about recruitment,” said one school.
Another commented: “Finding teachers who have fluency in languages is a major challenge for us and has reached crisis point [...] We have concerns that if this trend continues we may have to consider making the language optional.”
One secondary school commented that a shortage of qualified language teachers was one of the biggest issues it was facing.
“Advertisements for Spanish teachers for 2017-18 attracted three applicants, one turned up for interview and did not have a good reference from the previous school,” the school added.
Another stated: “We struggled to recruit French teachers in the past and find it almost impossible to source substitute language teachers throughout the year. This is a crisis waiting to happen.”
The report also notes the supply of newly-qualified teachers in languages has dropped dramatically.
Anecdotally, it says the fees and living costs associated with the two-year professional master’s of education, which replaced the old HDip in 2015, seem to be having a big impact on whether language graduates choose go into teaching.
The trends will be of concern to policymakers who want to boost foreign language provision following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.
The department's foreign languages strategy, published in 2017, aims to put Ireland in the top 10 countries in Europe for the teaching and learning of foreign languages. It is seeking to do this by boosting teacher supply, upskilling existing teachers and providing more foreign language assistants in the classroom to provide access to more languages.
However, the audit shows French dominates language tuition in secondary schools and is taught in 94 per cent of schools. It is the only language on offer in about a quarter of secondary schools.
By contrast, fee-paying voluntary secondary schools offer the widest range of languages at both junior and senior cycle. For example, just over three quarters (76 per cent) of fee-paying schools provide access to Spanish compared to only about a third (32 per cent) of State-run schools.
Similarly, provision of Chinese in transition year is as high as 50 per cent in fee-paying schools and as low as 14 per cent in State-run secondary schools.
The larger the school, the wider the choice of languages. For example, in junior cycle, about 31 per cent of small schools offer German. This rises to 66 per cent among medium-size schools and 78 per cent in large schools.
The audit showed a particularly reduced choice of languages in the northwest of the country, where there are more small or medium-size schools.
Just over a third of schools reported that some students were not studying any language for the Junior Cert. This, they say, was due to special needs or because taking a foreign language is optional in these schools.