IRELAND is far outpacing Scotland in the number of pupils taking Higher French and German in their final state school exams despite similar sized student populations, according to an investigation by The Herald.

A total of 22,135 pupils sat French at Leaving Certificate level in the Irish Republic this year, with 9975 and 8438 taking Spanish and German, respectively, meaning a total of 40,548 student entries across these subjects.

In comparison, 2500 pupils entered Higher level French in Scotland, while 2465 and 505 entered Higher level Spanish and German, according to figures published by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) last month.

Both countries had a similar numbers of pupils taking end of school qualifications this year.

Some 57,966 candidates sat the Leaving Certificate in Ireland in 2022 across all the curriculum, according to figures provided to The Herald by the country’s State Examinations Commission.

The SQA confirmed that the number of individual pupils who sat Highers this year in Scotland was 64,319.

The Scottish Government has regularly cited Ireland in its arguments for independence, pointing to the country’s strong economy.

In the first of its series of papers updating the case for independence, published in June, the Scottish Government highlighted that GDP in Ireland is $87,735 per head compared to the UK’s $41,000.

The Irish Government told The Herald that languages education was were a key part of the country’s economic policies.

A spokesman for the Department of Education in Dublin said its workforce strategy and enterprise body underlined the importance of languages.

“The National Skills Strategy 2025 lists foreign languages and cultural awareness among the cross-sectoral skills which improve an individual’s employability and enable occupational mobility.

“Enterprise Ireland has identified eight languages as important for Ireland’s future skills needs, noting that a workforce possessed of significant foreign language capabilities will make Ireland a more attractive destination for investment, and provide the skills required by our indigenous companies to enable them to expand into overseas markets,” he said.

The spokesman also noted the Irish Government’s 2017 to 2026 languages strategy, known as Languages Connect, which aims to increase the range of foreign languages taught in schools.

He listed a range of measures including the introduction of four new Leaving Certificate subjects curricula – Mandarin Chinese, Lithuanian, Polish and Portuguese – in September 2020 which were examined for the first time this June; an increase in the number of foreign language assistants; and extra resources for post-primary languages.

The strategy has been embraced by language experts in Ireland.

Tina-Karen Pusse, a lecturer at the National University of Ireland in Galway, said: “In general, we drive the message home that language proficiency does not only give students an advantage when they seek international employment, but also when they want to stay at home, since the Irish labour market is dominated by multinational companies.”

She added that languages take-up in Ireland remained high as they are not focused not only on pupils aiming to take a humanities degree, but also on those interested in following careers in commerce, law and science.

Dr Ann Devitt, associate professor of language education at the School of Education in Trinity College Dublin, said that while there was a strong “economic imperative” for pupils to study languages, their continuing popularity stemmed from a range of reasons.

“Like everywhere else there are shortages of staff, particularly around IT and around languages. So [pupils are told] if you have technical skills plus a language, the world’s your oyster,” she told The Herald. “But the Languages Connect Strategy here has been transformational. The main message from it is English is not enough.”

Dr Devitt also pointed to Brexit driving a need in Ireland develop closer relations with non-English speaking EU nations in order to increase trade with them to compensate for less UK business.

She said: “Brexit has an impact on Ireland’s need to diversify our markets in particular within the EU so that is a real imperative for Ireland.

“The Irish population is so small relative to the UK. For Scotland, perhaps the view is that the Anglosphere is a sufficiently large market so access to non-English speaking markets and economies is less of a concern?”

Dr Devitt also added that Ireland had high numbers of pupils taking languages partly due to historical reasons with many of the country’s universities requiring a foreign language as a requirement for most courses.

She said there was also a strong cultural sense of bilingualism in Ireland with pupils from the start of primary school required to study both Irish and English.

But she the said the biggest factor behind responsible for the higher number of those taking languages in Ireland than in Scotland could be the broad-based nature of the Leaving Certificate exam where pupils usually take seven subjects, compared to four or five Highers.

The Herald asked her whether Scotland should be concerned about the low numbers of pupils taking languages.

“One thing to acknowledge is that the pipeline dries up very quickly,” she said. “If you don’t have many people coming into third level to do a language, then you don’t have a lot of teachers qualifying in that language and then the numbers drop off really fast.”

Alison Payne, research director at think-tank Reform Scotland, underlined the problems facing Scotland and the UK due to poor language skills in the workforce.

“The UK Government has estimated that £48 billion is lost to the economy each year because of our poor language skills. We need to be talking to the world and it is not good enough to just presume everyone will speak English,” she said.

“Although the decline in French and German exam entries has been hastened by the narrowing of subject choice in S4, this is part of an ongoing trend stretching back beyond the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence.”

She said more could be done to harness the strengths of pupils whose first language may be Polish, Arabic, Urdu and Chinese.

She added: “While there has been a decline in exam entries, the number of pupils actually speaking additional languages in their day-to-day lives has increased. We have communities filled with talented individuals speaking a range of languages and this is a wonderful resource that should be celebrated.

“Polish, Arabic, Urdu and Chinese communities present a rich opportunity not only for pupils to engage with native speakers and learn from their peers, but to use these language skills on a daily basis.

“If we want to see genuine growth in language skills in Scotland, we need to rethink our approach to learning and we need to consider the language skills we want pupils who don’t intend to study languages academically to have.”

Ms Payne went on: “With advances in technology should there be more emphasis on being able to communicate verbally? Should we be ensuring our pupils have the confidence to try other languages? Should we begin teaching languages from a far younger age?

“We have pupils and communities already speaking a wide range of languages and we should be thinking about how we can use this fantastic resource to develop language skills in schools. 

“The Scottish Government’s 1+2 policy was the right ambition, but failing to consider the language skills of primary teachers meant it could never truly deliver.

“Ensuring we are teaching and learning languages effectively will benefit individuals as well as demonstrating that Scotland is outward-looking and wants to engage on a global level.”

Keir Bloomer, a former director of education at Clackmannanshire Council who is now leading a review into education in Northern Ireland, was not surprised about the low number of pupils taking Higher languages.

However, he said it was not a cause for concern given wider changes in the world and what he believed should be a greater focus on STEM subjects and social sciences in schools given finite financial resources.

“The trend has been going on for a considerable period of time and I think the conventional position is to regard it as undesirable,” he said.

“But I don’t particularly see it as undesirable. I think that the future of modern languages is as a minority concern and not as we used to think about it,

as one of the main pillars of secondary education.”

He added: “It seems to me no doubt that modern language learning in Scotland is a disaster area.”

He added: Mr Bloomer went on to say: “I am not hostile to modern languages but I am concerned about the fact we have pursued a policy with a consistent lack of success and we seem to remain reluctant to start with a realistic assessment of what the world is actually like. I think the knee jerk reaction that we tend to get over modern languages passes are going done doesn’t really serve us very well.”

The Scottish Government communications department is involved in leading media coordination relating to ceremonies and events in Scotland following the death of Queen Elizabeth and was unable to provide a comment.