I have been contacted recently by a source working within the Irish medium sector voicing their concerns with the recent review of Irish medium education, due to the fact that most parents with children attending IME schools it has been requested that I reproduce these opinions in English as well as Irish.The recent review of Irish-Medium Education has now finished with the DE considering the responses; however it may still be possible that a great opportunity to support a sector backed with the best of international research may fall short. While there is much to praise in the review, the first is that is that it happened at all and second must be that research included in it shows that DE has recognised perhaps for the first time, that the Irish-Medium Education offers real educational as well as linguistic benefits.
Unfortunately what the report fails to do, is to actually examine what Irish-medium Education sets out to achieve and then look at the review within this context. This lack of a general goal or scene setting has left the review document floundering somewhat and thus while the reports aim was to fully and appropriately support Irish-Medium as a integral part of the educational system, it is difficult to support something if there is no definition as to what it is you wish to support.
The new website of the Irish-medium body Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta (CnaG) clearly sets out a vision for the sector The development of a viable, inclusive system of Irish-medium education that will contribute to the development of Irish speaking families and communities. all within the greater context of the highest standards in education. As CnaG were founded and are funded by DE, perhaps one might be forgiven for using their vision as a yard stick in the absence of anything from the review report.
In all fairness, the overall linguistic aims of the IME movement would seem to me at least to be outside of the remitt of the Dept., perhaps it is hardly surprising that they focus purely on ‘educational’ matters?
If Irish speaking families and inclusivity were a DE stated objective, then how would the initial review report stack up?. Well for example the report proposed a whole range of Irish medium types which would result in deviating from the internationally proven and most effective form already practised here, this hardly makes sense.
This brings us to a major flaw of the report which was further outlined by DE staff when they consulted on the document within the community. That is, the report does not recognise fluency in Irish as an educational outcome, sure GCSEs, A Levels etc are counted but this is a far cry from recognising the skill as opposed to only the exam. Could we image anyone not recognising functional and communicational skill in English as an educational outcome?.
This underlying lack of understanding of bilingual outcomes that permeate the sector is the achilles heel of the whole report. Simple it does not place the Irish-Medium Education in its real world and linguistic context. Another example of this is the discussion around streams and units at post primary schools which are proposed in the report as viable options. Research from Canada shows that the number of hours in which a child is taught through the target language (in our case Irish) is important in maintaining and nurturing fluency in the second language in post primary. Jim Cummins one of the leading world experts in this field also adds to the debate saying that if language ability and use is a desired outcome of education then less intensive provisions are unlikely meet the needs while more intensive systems are likely to be better without negative impact on English. Indeed it seems a glaring omission that few if any international researches in the areas of bilingualism have been consulted in the Irish-medium review process.
I have to admitt that I constantly find myself pointing out to Irish language activists that the the overall education of the children trumps, in my view, judgements of IME based purely on degree on fluency in Irish, though this is not the point being argued, and argued well here.
A question also remains in relation to inclusivity, while it is a right of each Irish-Medium school to set its own religious ethos, it seems strange that the only place that offers Irish-Medium teacher training is in a Catholic teaching college and while that course may be open to people of all backgrounds, it will still be another hurdle for those in the non-Catholic community to cross, hardly a great start to a Shared Future.
My primary concern would be that the Catholic Church, traditionally the most effective of all the enemies Gaelic culture faces, controls the supply of teachers, thus controlling the growth of the sector.
The cynic in me would have to point out that I do not believe that the mooted ‘shared future’ envisages a place for Irish medium education.
However, extra training provision for Gaelscoil teachers outside of St. Mary’s will have to be vigourously worked for.
The consultation report looks at the needs of the Irish-medium sector as if it where any other sector, this must be welcomed because it seeks to look at some of the basic requirements which have been long neglected. The downside of the Review is that is that so far it has failed to really grasp what the sector is about and this lack of understanding and lack of robust research are a major weakness. Internal research tells us time and time again that political understanding and will towards indigenous language is one of the greatest factors in its success or failure, it remains to be seen if the Irish-medium review will stand that litmus test.
I would agree with the last line, however the Gaelscoil movement in the North has prospered in the face of hostility from the state for many years, that political ‘understanding and will’ is unlikely ever to come about, and the Gaelscoil movement will have to relearn to turn that adversity into advantage as in the past.