Lost for words

 

OBSCURED BY other budget cuts, the abolition of the Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative (MLPSI) is only now getting the kind of attention and scrutiny it merits. The initiative has provided classes in French, German, Italian and Spanish in 530 of the 3,000-plus primary schools in Ireland since 1998. (The Department of Education has always resisted a full roll-out of the programme on cost grounds.) In all, about 23,000 pupils gain access to the programme every year which lays a commendable stress on building up oral language skills. It also works to build up cultural awareness of other societies.

The Government’s move will yield annual savings of less than €5 million from the €9 billion education budget. With close to 80 per cent of this budget absorbed by pay and pensions – and therefore insulated by the Croke Park Agreement on public service reform – Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn, says he must cut back on education services in order to achieve the necessary cuts in current spending.

But the abolition of this language programme appears short-sighted and illogical; it represents a kind of educational vandalism which shows an appalling disregard for the importance of building up language skills among our young. As teachers engaged in the programme have noted: “It sends a message of insularity to our European neighbours and restricts the possible futures of the children of Ireland.’’

Instead of cutting back on modern languages, the Department of Education might consult the recent Royal Irish Academy report, The National Languages Strategy, which highlights Ireland’s deficiency in this regard. The report makes a robust case for increased language teaching to children as young as four and recommends an increase in language teacher numbers at all levels. It argues that linguistic underperformance is affecting economic competitiveness and the employment prospects of our young people.

Ireland has consistently failed to develop a coherent national strategy to address all aspects of language education including native and foreign languages. The introduction of the Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative was one small progressive step along the way. It was also cost effective. A programme which has achieved very significant benefits is being abolished with scant regard for the long-term consequences. This is no way to build a better education system.