Some secondary schools say they will be forced to reduce pupils’ access to foreign languages due to difficulties in recruiting qualified teachers, according to an audit by the Ministry of Education.
The report also shows evidence of a grade gap in access to language lessons, with fee-paying secondary school students much more likely to have a choice of languages to study.
By contrast, students in non-fee schools are more likely to have access to fewer languages, while thousands of students do not study any foreign language for Junior or Leaving Cert.
The findings are contained in a departmental audit of foreign language provision which examined more than half (55%) of post-primary schools in the state in the 2017/18 school year.
When schools were asked to comment on the language supply in their school, some said the issue of teacher supply had reached a ‘crisis point’.
“We are considering dropping a language because we are worried about recruitment,” one school said.
Another commented: “Finding teachers who are proficient in languages is a major challenge for us and has reached a crisis point […] We are concerned that if this trend continues, we should consider making language optional.
A secondary school said the shortage of qualified language teachers was one of the biggest problems it faced.
“Ads for Spanish teachers for 2017-2018 attracted three applicants, one showed up for an interview and did not have a good reference from the previous school,” the school added.
Another said: “We have struggled to recruit French teachers in the past and have found it almost impossible to find substitute language teachers throughout the year. It’s a crisis waiting.”
The report also notes that the supply of newly qualified language teachers has dropped dramatically.
Anecdotally, he says the fees and living expenses associated with the two-year Professional Masters in Education, which replaced the old HDip in 2015, seem to have a big impact on language graduates’ choice of get into teaching.
The trends will concern policy makers who want to boost foreign language provision following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.
The department’s foreign language strategy, published in 2017, aims to place Ireland in the top 10 European countries for teaching and learning foreign languages. It seeks to achieve this by increasing the supply of teachers, upgrading the skills of existing teachers and providing more foreign language assistants in classrooms to enable access to more languages.
However, the audit shows that French dominates language lessons in secondary schools and is taught in 94% of schools. It is the only language offered in around a quarter of secondary schools.
In contrast, fee-paying voluntary secondary schools offer the widest range of languages in the middle and upper cycle. For example, just over three-quarters (76%) of fee-paying schools provide access to Spanish, compared to only around one-third (32%) of public schools.
Similarly, the provision of Chinese in the transition year reaches 50% in fee-paying schools and 14% in public secondary schools.
The larger the school, the wider the choice of languages. For example, at the first cycle, around 31% of small schools offer German. This percentage rises to 66% in medium-sized schools and 78% in large schools.
The audit showed a particularly reduced choice of languages in the north-west of the country, where the schools are smaller or medium-sized.
Just over a third of schools reported that some students did not study any language for the Junior Cert. This, they say, was due to special needs or because learning a foreign language is optional in these schools.