Public urged to lobby Minister over decision to scrap modern languages programme

Primary school language tutors being interviewed by UTV's Jamie Delargy during the recent day of strike action by public sector workers. INNT 13-512CON
Primary school language tutors being interviewed by UTV's Jamie Delargy during the recent day of strike action by public sector workers. INNT 13-512CON

Pupils at more than a dozen local primary schools could see their modern language classes scrapped due to government funding cuts.

Education Minister John O’Dowd recently confirmed that the Primary Modern Languages Programme will cease on March 31.

The decision means that 16 local primary schools could lose their Spanish tuition sessions for P1 - P4 children, unless they can find alternative sources of funding to enable them to continue the classes.

The local schools affected are Ashgrove, Ballyhenry, Ballynure, Carnmoney, Doagh, Fairview, Gaelscoil Eanna, Mallusk, Mossgrove, Mossley, St James’s, St Mary’s on the Hill, Straid, Tildarg, Tir na nOg and Whitehouse.

Catherine Rojas, who is originally from Chile, is one of around 90 tutors set to lose their jobs at the end of March. She has been a programme tutor for the past four-and-a-half years and teaches in seven schools, including Mossley Primary.

“It is a fantastic programme and it is extremely shameful that it is going,” she said. “It has immense value in terms of cultural awareness and cultural diversity.

“The children will be gutted to hear that it is ending. I can’t even bring myself to tell some of my P1s the news.”

Accusing the Minister of “undervaluing the benefits of a second language in terms of employability and mobility in the future”, tutor Jayne McKenna stressed that the cost of the programme works out at just 75p per child per week.

“This penny pinching decision to axe this very successful and valuable programme is both absurd and disgraceful at a time the Minister is approving huge expenditure for an Irish medium secondary school near Dungiven which is neither viable or sustainable,” she commented.

“Mr O’Dowd’s decision means he has deprived the young children of Northern Ireland of all abilities and including those children from socio-economic deprived backgrounds of the opportunity to learn on an equal basis.

“School principals, parents and political representatives through letters and petition have fully supported a request that the future of the primary languages programme must be reconsidered. A failure to continue to fund the programme in its present format catering for Spanish, Polish and Irish would mean Northern Ireland will be the only country in Western Europe not teaching a foreign language in primary schools. This retrograde step cannot be allowed to happen if we are to be considered as a serious progressive country looking to move forward.”

South Antrim MLA Danny Kinahan branded the decision to scrap the programme “an absolutely disgraceful act of academic self-destruction.”

“In my entire time on the Education Committee I have stood for the idea that things can be done more efficiently without compromising on the end product. This decision stands in stark contrast to that,” the UUP man said. “It is short-sighted, poorly conceived and will not deliver a worthwhile saving on the budget.

“It is not often that we have a decision by an Education Minister to axe a language programme in the same month as a statement from the UK Foreign Office saying that our lack of foreign language proficiency is hampering our nation’s diplomacy.”

Antrim and Newtownabbey Councillor Vera McWilliam added: “I believe, with this decision, the Minister is undervaluing the benefits of language learning, in terms of skills, employability and mobility for the future. Not only will scrapping this programme leave language tutors out of work at relatively short notice, but it will also leave many children worse off.

“This programme should not be axed and I urge the Minister to seriously rethink this short-sighted decision.”

The Primary Modern Languages Programme delivers foreign language lessons to Key Stage 1 children (P1 to P4) in over 400 primary schools across Northern Ireland, reaching almost 40,000 children per week.

A spokesman for the Department of Education confirmed that the programme will discontinue from the end of March 2015 as “there is currently no further funding available.”

“The Department has no plans to introduce a new programme run on the basis of peripatetic tutors to provide Irish or any other language to Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1 pupils. The Department considers that building capacity among class teachers is the most sustainable approach to primary language provision.

“While the central funding from the Department will end, individual schools may wish to continue with the programme funded from their own school funding,” he said.

An online petition on the website calling on the Minister to rethink the decision to end the programme has already received more than 2,000 signatures.

The tutors are urging the public and politicians to lobby Mr O’Dowd in a bid to get him to reverse his decision.

The online petition can be accessed by clicking here.