Language of educational apartheid


GIVE ME A BREAK:ON THE DART the other day I heard a man and a woman conversing in Irish - gossiping, flirting a little, sharing news, writes  Kate Holmquist 

Their conversation was lilting, sparkling language at its best. In my office, those who speak the language sometimes take phone calls in Irish or share a few words across desks. To hear Irish spoken naturally and with pleasure is a delight. But to hear it forced and stilted, to struggle over it as the children do homework they barely understand, while I, the parent who is supposed to help them, understand even less, is the opposite of pleasure. Spoken by choice, the language blossoms; learned by force, it shrivels and is hard to crack. While I appreciate the language, I abhor the educational apartheid that goes along with it.

The fact that children in Irish-speaking schools - some who already come from Irish-speaking backgrounds - get extra marks in the Leaving Cert is a scandal. Students in Irish schools doing their exams through Irish enjoy positive discrimination, with an advantage in the Leaving Cert of up to 10 per cent of their original result, and that puts children in English-speaking schools, from English-speaking and immigrant families, at a disadvantage.

In the league tables of "feeder schools" published in The Irish Times last week, seven of the top 25 feeder schools (fee-paying and non-fee-paying) were Irish-speaking, while 14 of the top 25 non-fee-paying schools were Irish-speaking. You don't have to be able to speak Irish to figure out that if you want to give your child the best chance of getting into university and still be able to afford a holiday, you send them to a non-fee-paying Irish school, which requires living near an Irish secondary school, often in counties Cork, Donegal, Mayo or Kerry, the heartlands of Irish-speaking privilege. But you don't have to be outside Dublin - two of the highest-scoring Irish-speaking schools are in Stillorgan, Co Dublin, where relatively privileged families make the most of the Department of Education's 10 per cent Leaving Cert points bonus.

Not only will your child be surrounded by mostly middle-class children and get the 10 per cent bonus, but he or she will also be likely to have smaller classes, aiding performance in other subjects. Every year, the Leaving Cert students with the most As come largely from Irish-speaking schools.

This is positive discrimination, and it wouldn't be tolerated anywhere else. Can you imagine the uproar if the Department of Education awarded an extra 10 per cent to English-speaking students doing their exams through French or Arabic of Mandarin. There is an apartheid between children who go to Irish-speaking schools and those who don't, which is why Irish should be taken off the compulsory curriculum in secondary school and ranked with French, Spanish, German and Mandarin as a subject to choose, with no extra points. Why should learning maths, geography and home economics through Irish give anyone a better chance of getting into medicine or law? If students want to study Irish as a second or third language, then let them, but in a global Ireland where students of various backgrounds are competing, why should those from Irish schools have the advantage?

The facts speak for themselves. Students from Irish-speaking schools are more likely to get on the university course of their choice, whether it's law, medicine or the arts.

Non-Irish-speaking secondary-school students are aware of their disadvantage. It's got to the stage now where having dyslexia is considered an enviable bonus among secondary-school students, because it exempts these students from having to do Irish. Dyslexia is linked to creativity and coping skills, and if your child is going to have a "special need", it's the one to pick. But there are children with dyspraxia, ADHD and other neurological disorders who have similar difficulties but are not exempt from Irish if they can show capability in English.

Parents and teachers have spent thousands of hours encouraging these children to communicate well in English, yet when they succeed, the children are put at a disadvantage by being made to study Irish. If only they'd written their letters the wrong way round and become exempt! While the department says that all children should learn Irish, the Irish-speaking schools have far fewer children with learning disabilities than other schools. The department's own audit showed few children with special needs in Irish-speaking schools - so are Irish-language schools weeding these children out?

But the best argument of all against the compulsory learning of Irish in secondary school is that we are a multicultural society where many languages are spoken. Those who speak Irish well are not the underprivileged, they are the privileged. For whatever reason, they go to Irish-speaking schools. But they have no more right to 10 per cent extra points in the Leaving Cert than do Muslim, French or Chinese children doing the Leaving Cert through English.