Gaelscoileanna are not just a ‘middle-class’ option
Opinion: More parents need to be able to access education through the Irish language
A 2015 ESRI survey indicated that 23 per cent of parents want education through Irish for their children, but only a small minority are able to access it. Photo: iStock
In responding to the challenges of creating a truly diverse education system, a vital aspect must not be forgotten or downplayed: that of Irish-medium provision.
Minister for Education Richard Bruton recently asked the education and training boards to survey their areas to ascertain if there is a demand for alternative school models, such as the multidenominational one currently provided by An Foras Pátrúnachta.
Another alternative, much discussed over recent weeks, is the community national school model.
This model, already provided by the education and training boards, follows a multi-belief programme whilst also facilitating faith formation within the school day.
We in An Foras Pátrúnachta, as a patron since 1993 of Irish-medium schools using a variety of ethos models, want to respond to this initiative and to the debate around it.
The question of religious ethos is of course at the centre of this debate, and we recognise its significance; but diversity is also about language ethos.
The Irish language, and the provision of education through Irish, must also receive the focus the demand for it deserves.
The educational benefits of teaching through Irish are attested; its cultural importance well understood; and the demand for it – with a 2015 ESRI survey putting the figure at 23 per cent of parents – is now well established.
But the truth is that nowhere near enough parents can easily access the option.
It is sometimes said, somewhat dismissively, that Irish-medium education is a “middle-class” choice.
This is simply untrue, as our schools and parent bodies will attest.
But it is true that many communities throughout our country do not have the option of Irish-medium education – with oversubscription for places and/or schools being too far away to make attendance feasible.
This is wrong on so many levels – not least that it is against the spirit of all measures to ensure Irish language provision in the delivery of services.
The passion for our language is not confined to, or owned by, any one community in Ireland, and we see a unifying demand throughout all our communities for the option of education through Irish.
We know well that within those communities there are competing demands for varying ethos options.
These demands are a reflection of our modern communities which are a mix of secular and religious, traditional and pluralistic beliefs.
How to serve these differing demands in our schools has been a question we all have grappled with.
We now wish to make a major contribution to resolving these challenges, while allowing Irish-medium education to form a key component of the solution.
For quite some time, we in An Foras Pátrúnachta have recognised the need for an interbelief model which addresses the demand from parents for a school with a multidenominational approach but which also addresses the demands for a model which includes faith formation within school time.
The inclusion of the community national school model in this process both reflects our own thinking on the matter and provides opportunities for significant progress.
As a patron whose primary goal is to provide Irish-medium education through the spiritual ethos sought by parents, we have now decided to provide this option when establishing Irish-medium schools, where a demand for such is established.
By us providing this new model, the reconfiguration process will crucially gain capacity to potentially establish Irish-medium schools in areas where currently there are none.
Furthermore, this process could present current Irish-medium schools with the opportunity to transfer patronage to an Irish-medium patron body, using any of our range of ethos models, if they wish.
Our role as the only patron body established solely for Irish-medium education places us in a unique position here.
We want to ensure that the parties in the process, who will be central to the decision on the choice of patronage model, are made fully aware of every option on offer.
We have written to the Minister asking him to include our offering to the communities and patrons who will be surveyed for their views as part of this process.
In 2015-2016, on the island of Ireland, just over 65,000 school pupils were receiving education through Irish – with all the benefits this brings.
These numbers can be grown significantly and rapidly if the process which is now unfolding allows the demand for Irish language provision to be fully revealed, and if the right models can be offered.
We believe we have offered a path to provide diversity and to meet the demand for Irish-medium education; we want to engage now with our partners to ensure that the undoubted demand and love for our language can bloom.
Caoimhín Ó hEaghra is ard-rúnaí of An Foras Pátrúnachta, the largest patron of Irish-medium schools