Irish-medium secondary schooling is increasingly popular

Benefits of bilingual education include enhanced creative and divergent thinking

Coláiste Eoin in Stillorgan, Co Dublin features in the top 10 list of all secondary schools. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Coláiste Eoin in Stillorgan, Co Dublin features in the top 10 list of all secondary schools. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

One distinctive feature of the annually published schools data set is the proportion of Irish language schools that consistently rank prominently at the upper end of the tables.

This year, for example, three Irish-medium schools feature in the top 10 list of all secondary schools. Galway’s Coláiste na Coiribe comes at the very top of the list as the school with the highest rate of students progressing to third level.

Coláiste Íde, Dingle, is ninth in the list while Coláiste Eoin, Stillorgan, comes in at 10th. Add Laurel Hill Coláiste FCJ and four of the top 10 schools listed as non-fee paying schools also happen to be Irish-medium schools.

This apparent overrepresentation of Irish-medium schools in the feeder schools list seems to be out of kilter with their overall number. Of the 735 secondary schools registered with the Department of Education in 2016, just 48 are fully Irish-medium.

So why this overrepresentation? The benefits of bilingual education are well-documented and are clearly not lost on parents, many of whom are increasingly choosing this option for their children.

Decades of applied educational and linguistic research have deepened our understanding of the benefits of bilingualism and bilingual education. Bilinguals have been shown to be more flexible in their thinking and more adept at thinking about how they use language to make themselves understood. Bilingual speakers have also been shown to be more effective at creative and divergent thinking.

A 2011 study published by the University of Limerick found that learning mathematics through the medium of Irish at primary level may enhance long-term mathematical understanding and attainment in English-medium second-level education.

In 2014, a study of 18,000 Spanish-speaking students carried out by Stanford University in the San Francisco area found that students in classrooms taught in two languages not only catch up with their English immersion counterparts but eventually surpass them both academically and linguistically.

Literacy in the first language makes learning second and subsequent languages much easier. In Ireland, where English is the dominant societal language, interest in bilingual education continues to grow, as evidenced by a rise in enrolment at Irish language schools.

According to the latest data from the Department of Education and Skills, 24,668 students were registered as receiving their education through Irish at secondary level in 2015/2016.

This is an increase of 900 students on the 23,768 registered in the previous academic year.

Increasing interest

This increasing interest has also been recorded in wider society. Census data shows almost 1.66 million people, aged three years and over, were able to speak Irish in 2006 compared with 1.57 million in 2002. According to Census 2011, the number of people who declared they can speak Irish increased by 7.1 per cent since 2006.

Despite this growth in interest, the Irish language education sector faces barriers that are unique to it in the context of the wider education sector.

About 8 per cent of primary schools now teach through the medium of Irish while secondary schools that teach in Irish account for about 6 per cent.

Campaigners have long argued the school selection process is skewed against those who wish to make a case for new Irish-medium post-primary schools on the basis that they cannot numerically compete with English-language schools in strictly-defined catchment areas.

Caoimhín Ó hEaghra, general secretary of the Irish language patron an Foras Pátrúnachta says the biggest obstacle faced by the sector “is addressing the demand that we have for this type of education”.

“All parents want to provide their children with the best possible education. There is an increased understanding amongst parents that Irish-medium education provides children with academic, cognitive and social benefits that are unparalleled. These benefits coupled with students who become fluent as Gaeilge makes it a very attractive option,” he says.

Of the top 10 non fee-paying schools whose students progress to third-level education, four are Gaelcholáistí or Irish language schools. They are the aforementioned Coláiste na Coiribe in Galway, Coláiste Íde in Co Kerry, Coláiste Eoin in Co Dublin and Laurel Hill Coláiste FCJ in Limerick.