Gaeltacht education reform must focus on language crisis

Opinion: Pupils must be helped to use Irish socially, not just in the classroom

The first education policy for the Gaeltacht provide an opportunity to refocus State policy on the crisis of the Irish language in the Gaeltacht. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

The first education policy for the Gaeltacht provide an opportunity to refocus State policy on the crisis of the Irish language in the Gaeltacht. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

It has been something of a wait: the first education policy for the Gaeltacht (2017-2022) was recently published by the Department of Education and Skills.

We hope the policy will encourage the State to refocus its overall policy on the crisis of the Irish language in the Gaeltacht.

It provides formal criteria by which schools in the Gaeltacht can be recognised as designated Irish-medium schools.

It may also encourage the pro-active management of schools to support the Gaeltacht community and identity, if implemented with sincerity. This would be a new departure for the State’s language policy.

Up to now there has been a laissez-faire vacuum in which schools operated an Irish-medium policy only if it accorded with their educational philosophy; if there were a high number of Irish-speaking pupils in the school; and if the teaching staff had the required proficiency in Irish.

For the first time, the policy differentiates between the needs of native Irish speakers and the needs of learners of Irish, ie English speakers.

This is a welcome dose of reality and an honest depiction of the many obstacles to education provision in the endangered Gaeltacht.

Two challenges

The overall vision of the new policy is ambitious but the mechanisms to implement it are ambiguous. To be effective the policy has to overcome two primary challenges.

Firstly, there is the issue of how to integrate English speakers into Irish-medium schools.

The policy recognises that English usually dominates in interactions outside the classroom. This means that Irish speakers lack, as individuals and as a group, peer socialisation in their native language.

But the policy offers no targeted solutions to this dominant social use of English. It focuses on in-class supports for Irish, which is already the case in most Irish-medium Gaeltacht schools.

It needs to go further, and support the social use of Irish among pupils. A Gaeltacht school is surely one in which home speakers of Irish are allowed and encouraged to socialise in their first language.

Secondly, there is the challenge of how to integrate a Gaeltacht school into a Gaeltacht community.

The publication of the education policy provides a much-needed impetus to revisit the well-documented deficiencies in the 20-year strategy regarding the social vision for the Gaeltacht.

Without a cohesive and integrated alignment between schools and community, the policy will be ineffective.

Unfortunately, the articulation between the community and the schools via local language plans, backed by Údarás na Gaeltachta, is convoluted and divorced from power.

In order for such plans, which include the designated Gaeltacht school, to be effective, a lot of joined-up thinking and effective implementation is required.

A bureaucratic danger inherent in the new policy is that the numerous committees could become irrelevant talking shops which merely mask the decline of the Gaeltacht and would risk causing further cynicism in communities.

These two issues are sensitive and complex, but they need to be clarified if there is to be any hope of success.

Socialisation

Given that the Gaeltacht is now in decline, if it is to be revived by the new education policy and language plans, then two challenges above need to be addressed as follows:

Irish-language socialisation in Gaeltacht schools. Only schools where socialisation is through Irish can be meaningfully designated as successful Gaeltacht schools. If children do not use Irish among themselves it is almost impossible for individuals to speak well, and thus, for Irish to be the communal language of their peer group.

The vibrant use of Irish in the schoolyard by children far outweighs so much else. Children’s social use of Irish is the best indicator of the vitality of Irish and the future resilience of the community who speak and support it.

Dynamic integration of Gaeltacht school policy with communal policy will ensure the social, educational and economic benefits of membership in the Gaeltacht community.

The vision of an integrated language and community revival is the next logical step. Sufficiently empowered Gaeltacht communities could use integrated educational and communal strategies as a mechanism for revival.

If it addresses the two major faultlines we have outlined, the new Gaeltacht education policy can provide the opportunity for supporting re-empowered communities to bring about a renewed linguistic and social identity in a revived Gaeltacht.

Conchúr Ó Giollagáin (University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland) and Brian Ó Curnáin (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies) recently published Beartas Úr na nGael: Dálaí na Gaeilge san Iar-Nua-Aoiseachas (A New Deal for Gaels: Irish in Postmodernity) (Leabhar Breac)