Instead of being in the classroom today, students in Coláiste Lú, an ‘aonad’ providing Irish-medium post-primary education in Dundalk, are on the picket line alongside their parents, protesting for their right to education. The crisis has come about due to a step-back of the immersion education model in the school. Previously, the students were immersed in Irish during their school day, both during class times and during break times’ Now, the use of Irish in the school has been drastically curtailed and the Coláiste is no longer providing an Irish-speaking environment for them.
Coláiste Lú was established as an ‘aonad’ in 2013. The aonad model is where a section of an English-medium school provides Irish-medium education for the students. The Coláiste was very well-regarded for its strong Irish-language and education ethos but this changed in 2018, when students and parents raised concerns that the language was losing its status in the school, and that the immersion education model they’d signed up for was no longer being implemented.
“They sought assurances from the school’s management and patron – the Louth and Meath Education & Training Board – that measures would be put in place to remedy this and to protect the Irish-language ethos of the school. However, the agreed measures were not implemented and they’ve lost students as a result, and are in danger of losing more” said Bláthnaid ní Ghréacháin, Gaeloideachas CEO.
Among the agreed measures were basic requirements; a return to core subjects and a range of optional subjects being available through Irish, the students having their own social space, and recognition for the distinct identity of Coláiste Lú relative to that of the English-medium school in which it’s located. Gaeloideachas understands, however, that all of these issues have become more critical since the start of the new school term. Just one subject (apart from Irish) is being taught through the medium of Irish, Coláiste Lú students are fully integrated with the students of the English-medium school and have no space in which to speak Irish socially, and the school management has refused to recognise either the student council or the parent council of Coláiste Lú.
The solution, according to Gaeloideachas, is for the Department of Education & Skills to grant Coláiste Lú status as an independent school. This needs to be done immediately, to protect the future of Irish-medium education in the region. As an independent school, Coláiste Lú would be entitled to its own principal and board of management, which is not something an ‘aonad’ is allowed, and it would also have its own staffing allowance. The school’s patron made an application to the Department of Education & Skills for independent status for Coláiste Lú back in April. The application was refused, with the Department citing insufficient student numbers, even though the Coláiste’s enrolment is in keeping with that of a new school. There is a danger now that the region will be left with no Irish-medium post-primary school if Coláiste Lú was to close. “As an ‘aonad’, Coláiste Lú is utterly dependent on the resources and goodwill of the English-medium school in which it’s located” said ní Ghréacháin “and this makes it extremely vulnerable. It will be impossible to regain public confidence in Coláiste Lú if we can’t secure its future, and it needs to have independent school status for that to happen”.
There are 12 other Irish-medium ‘aonad’ in operation in English-medium schools around the country and all of them are vulnerable in the same way, due to the lack of a policy on how they should be established and maintained. In the last 20 years, 7 others have closed. Gaeloideachas and the communities in these schools have been campaigning on this issue for years, and there is huge concern that without immediate intervention by the Department, Coláiste Lú and its vision of Irish-medium education for students in the region will come to an end.