Réamonn Ó Ciaráin is Director of Education with Gael Linn. Here he argues that recent downgrading of language teaching in educational priorities is having a dilatory effect on the numbers learning Irish in Northern Irish schools.
There is without doubt a crisis in languages in post-primary schools in Northern Ireland. It is affecting some languages worse than others. The Irish language is traditionally only offered in half the English medium post-primary schools in this jurisdiction. This because of historical and socio-political reasons and the language is therefore being hit particularly badly.
Concerns were raised by 57 teachers who attended a recent meeting (29th September 2021 via Zoom organised by An Gréasán) to address the critical decline in the uptake of the Irish language and other languages. The last time such a meeting was organised by Irish language teachers was in 1988 when the then Minister of Education Brian Mawhinney threatened to downgrade and marginalise the position of Irish in schools with his reforms. My colleagues and I are referring to what is happening now as Mawhinney by the backdoor.
If the legislative bodies of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Department of Education and their arm’s length bodies, such as CCEA, as well as the Education Authority, do not intercede as matter of urgency to reverse these worrying trends in the study of the Irish and other languages irreparable damage could be caused to language departments and to the study of Irish, the indigenous language here, in particular.
Irish is a valuable area of study for many pupils. The demand for a competence in the Irish language in the workplace is expanding rapidly as the sector grows. This growth is being driven by Irish medium education which has more than 7,000 pupils in the North now. Demand for workers with Irish is currently outstripping supply. 500 jobs with Irish as a requirement or desirable were advertised on the Island last year (May 2020 to May 2021) according to Conradh na Gaeilge’s peig.ie website.
Despite this increase in job opportunities, pupils and schools in the English medium sector are being diverted from the study of Irish and other languages unfairly by the education system as it is currently constituted. The authorities seem bent on making it difficult for languages and then to claim that there is no demand. Westminster is the main culprit here with devolved government failing to recognise that there is a problem.
From 2007, the impact of the disapplication of a requirement for all pupils to take an additional language at GCSE began to undermine the study of the traditional languages here in the North. That disapplication, with its intentionally opaque name, was enacted in 2004 under Tony Blaire’s Labour Government. It continues to have detrimental consequences for the study of languages in the United Kingdom but it is having a devastatingly negative impact on Irish, an already marginalised language.
Figures never tell the whole story but they give a powerful indication of what has been happening. There has been a 43% reduction in the number of students studying Irish at GCSE from 2665 students in 2007 to 1519 students in 2021, a reduction of 1146 pupils. Over 42% of the pupils taking GCSE Irish come from Irish Medium Schools and, as welcome as these Gaelscoil number are, they conceal a looming reality. The study of the Irish language in English Medium Schools is quickly approaching 50% of the uptake it once achieved at GCSE.
The picture is even more worrying at ‘A-Level’. At first glance, however, the numbers choosing Irish at A’Level would appear to have improved; 2007 saw 279 choose Irish while in 2021 325 pupils sat A’Level Irish. These figures disguise the fears keeping many Irish teachers from sleep and that is that only about 50% of the pupils taking Irish at A’Level come from the English Medium Sector and the others coming from an Irish Medium background at either primary or post-primary levels.
At the Irish langauge teachers’ meeting the most pressing reasons militating against the study of Irish and other languages at GCSE and A’Level in the English Medium Sector were chronicled and written up in an open letter soon to make its way to Michelle McIlveen. Being a pragmatic group of people not unfamiliar with the struggle for language rights, these Irish teachers offer practical solutions which would not burst the coffers;
Problem – Disapplication of requirement to take a language imposed by Westminster in 2004
Solution – Department of Education recommends that all pupils take an additional language of their choice (French, German, Irish, Spanish) at GCSE in all post primary schools
Problem – Currently there is no strategy for languages in Education with a draft strategy on the shelf for almost a decade
Solution – A new fit for purpose languages strategy to be developed and implemented for all sectors.
Problem – Outmoded opinions and advice relating to careers in Irish and other languages being presented to pupils and parents.
Solution – Awareness raising campaign about the many benefits associated with Irish and multilingualism.
Problem – Termination of Primary Modern Languages Programme in 2015
Solution – A new Primary Modern Languages Programme which is effective and based on best practice.
Problem – Concerns regarding the awarding of top grades at both GCSE/GCE, and the perception of severe marking and the content being too difficult for many students.
Solution – Genuine and concerted action to resolve this long-identified issue and the correct adjustment of marking bands to accurately and realistically represent the Irish language cohort at GCSE and A’Level.
Problem – Lack of support for pupils to attend Gaeltacht Courses and enjoy extra-curricular Irish language learning opportunities.
Solution – Greater and more realistic support from central Government for Gaeltacht summer courses and for learning Irish and other languages outside the school gates through established organisations.
Problem – Continual failure to address the decline in uptake of Irish and other languages and issues as they relate to the study and teaching of Irish in particular.
Solution – Appointment of Irish language Commissioner with staffing provision to assist with Irish language education across all sectors.
Teachers and advocates of Irish have long-recognised these problems and others but are also keen to present solutions. We now require the will and resources to improve these issues which have been reducing the uptake of Irish and other languages for too long now. The Mawhinney reforms were overturned in 1988. Will the dedicated teachers of the Irish language, a language spoken here for over 2000 years, avert this creeping marginalisation and downgrading in 2021?
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