The announcement by the Minister for Education & Skills today that two of the twelve new primary schools due to open in September 2019 will be Irish-medium schools comes as welcome news to Gaeloideachas and the communities of South Dublin (Booterstown and Blackrock) and Maynooth.
The patronage of these new schools was awarded to An Foras Pátrúnachta as a result of a process initiated by the Department of Education & Skills to choose patrons for 12 primary schools to open in 2019. There was an opportunity to establish Irish-medium schools in each of the 12 areas, and it is very disappointing for parents who sought the option of Irish-medium education in their own areas that this demand will not be met.
Since 2011, he Department has used a system whereby parents are canvassed to make decisions about the kind of new schools that are being established. This is done with a view to making it a transparent and democratic process. Despite revisions to the process again this year, however, Irish-medium education remains at a significant disadvantage, as the process does not facilitate the significant minority of parents who choose to have their children educated through Irish.
It is a complicated process, and the level of engagement from parents has been low. The process is not clear or easily understood, and the consultations were run over the Christmas holidays, the worst time of year for those with young children to be asked to engage with the process. Under the current arrangements, it is up to prospective patrons to inform parents of the opportunity to choose a new school for their area, rather than the Department taking responsibility for providing the options in a neutral and balanced way. In practice, this makes it very difficult for patrons whose schools cater for minorities, such as those offering Irish-medium education, to compete with large, high-profile patrons with national and international status.
Need for revision of the process to establish new schools
Gaeloideachas was disappointed not to have had the opportunity to consult with the Department prior to the commencement of the process for 2019, despite an investigation by the Irish Language Commissioner on the outcome of the previous process, and submissions and repeated requests by Gaeloideachas for meetings with the Department’s officials, the former Minister Richard Bruton and the current Minister Joe Mc Hugh. We welcome the Department’s commitment to consult with us ahead of the 2020 process, and we look forward to presenting our recommendations on the issue to Minister Mc Hugh.
Despite a statement from the Department asserting that it has made progress in assessing and facilitating the demand for Irish-medium education, the current process has evidenced no change in approach, as patronage is still being awarded to the patron with the greatest number of expressions of interest. This is despite the Department’s indication that the demand for Irish-medium education is a central and very important part of the assessment.
There are inaccuracies in the reports issued by the Department on how the process was run in each of the respective areas; the percentage of parents who expressed a demand for Irish-medium education appears to be lower than it should be due to parents’ misunderstanding of a second question relating to language ethos, and there are inaccuracies in the number of pupils enrolled in the case of at least one of the existing Irish-medium schools, indicating that there are places available where the school is in fact full.
The report recognises that there is a demand for Irish-medium education in all twelve of the areas in which new schools are to open. Gaeloideachas is very unhappy with the inclusion in the report of a statement that, in the ten areas which are to see English-medium schools established, “sufficient evidence is not available to show that a school established as an Irish-medium school will be, or could become, viable”. This cannot be proven, it is not clear what criteria – if any – were used to make this determination, and the same criteria would not be applied to an English-medium school. The additional recommendations made by the Department as to how this demand for Irish-medium education might be met are inappropriate, i.e. the possibility of expanding existing schools and/or changing their ethos to become multidenominational schools (where they are denominational or interdenominational schools). Extensive consultation and research is required on the implications such a change of status would have for a school’s community and language ethos before such a recommendation could be made.
Looking to the future
Gaeloideachas will continue to lobby to ensure that:
- appropriate provision is made for parents who wish to have Irish-medium education available to their children;
- the Department of Education & Skills will accept responsibility for designing and managing a process in a way that is understandable, clear, easy and user-friendly for parents, and;
- a policy for Irish-medium education is adopted that incorporates systems to adequately serve the State policies in relation to the promotion of Irish.
Campaigns for the areas where schools will be established in 2020 will be launched soon, and all information will be available on www.gaelscoil4all.ie.
All information about Irish-medium education from preschool, to primary and post-primary schools can be found at www.gaeloideachas.ie.