Call for guidelines on English for immigrant children

Tue, Aug 19, 2008, 01:00

The Government must issue “clear guidelines” on the teaching of English to non-Irish nationals learning the language in State schools, the body charged with implementing the national anti-racism policy said today.

The National Action Plan Against Racism (NPAR) was responding to a call by Fine Gael to separate non-Irish national children with poor English language skills from other students.

NPAR said the Department of Education had fallen “significantly short” of its specific commitments on diversity in the classroom.

Fine Gael education spokesman Brian Hayes said yesterday that children should not be put into a mainstream class until they have a competence for English and that if this required segregation, it would be in the best interests of the child concerned.

Chair of NPAR Lucy Gaffney said that the classroom was “the ideal place for children of different cultures to mix” and that politicians should be “cautious” about the language they use on such issues.

She said the Government had been “sitting on their hands for ten years in regard to providing strategies for the teaching of immigrant children in our schools”.

“I find it incredible that after 10 years of net immigration into Ireland of families and children from all over the world, the Government is still waiting on the publication of reports and research before it decides on the best approach for teaching immigrant children in our schools.

“What has the Department of Education been doing for the past decade if it finds itself unable to provide clear guidelines on this important matter?

Ms Gaffney said that while “immense progress” had been made in some areas, the Department of Education had “fallen significantly short of its specific commitments in regard to diversity in the classroom”.

“The classroom is the ideal place for children from different cultures to mix. We should be doing all in our power to promote integration rather than separation. In this regard, comments from politicians suggesting that ‘segregation’ may be required are ill-judged.”

Ms Gaffney acknowledged that while there may be “legitimate concerns” about immigrant children falling behind because of less-developed language skills, separating them from their peers on this basis alone was “not the solution”.

“A means should be found to provide them with tuition in English while allowing them remain in the same class as other children.”

Minister of State at the Department of Finance Dr Martin Mansergh said Fine Gael’s call was “ill-advised and potentially divisive”.

In a statement, he said: “Recent suggestions made by Deputy Hayes about immigrant children are irresponsible. The word segregation has very negative connotations. It brings to mind images of racial segregation and a time where racism was not only condoned but was an everyday reality in many parts of the world.

Mr Hayes said yesterday many parents were frustrated at the effect the lack of segregation was having on the education of their English-speaking children.

Dr James O'Higgins-Norman of the School of Education Studies at Dublin City University said Mr Hayes's call was "clearly, although maybe not intentionally, racist in nature". "It is at least a move towards a form of indirect discrimination in education," he said.

The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) said it preferred to describe the teaching of immigrant children apart from their peers as “immersion classes” rather than “segregation”.

Meanwhile Siptu said that it was "ironic" that the debate had begun during the same week that the State’s main language and integration centre for refugees closed down.

Integrate Ireland Language and Training (IILT), a Government-funded company providing English language teaching to adult refugees and teaching materials for primary and secondary schools closed with the loss of 44 jobs. It had 12 centres throughout the State.

“Experience around the world has shown that segregation is the policy not alone of exclusion but of failure. We are turning our  back on some of the most vulnerable young people in our society for miniscule savings to the Exchequer,” said Siptu education branch organiser Chris Rowland.