We’ve welcomed Ukrainian children to our primary school. Some of their mothers – while very grateful for having a school place – are worried that their children face a big challenge coming up to speed in both English and Irish. Are exemptions available for Irish given their unusual circumstances?
I had the privilege over the summer of helping Ukrainian families navigate our education system. This is an issue which has been raised. There is not a hint of disrespect for our native language. Rather, their concern is a practical one about the challenge for their children of learning two new languages simultaneously.
The regulations relating to the study of Irish in schools are governed by circulars issued by the Department of Education. The most recent circular was issued at the end of August 2022 and applies to the current school year and to English-medium schools.
Irish remains compulsory in school, but students are entitled to opt out in “exceptional circumstances” if they have learning difficulties, special needs or have lived abroad for a long period.
At primary level, relocating from abroad is typically not a basis for securing an exemption unless the child is 12 years or older or has completed their equivalent of primary education elsewhere. It is more straightforward at post-primary, given that anyone aged 12 or more who lived outside the State for an extended period of time may apply.
Culture and history
Why it is this the case? As the circular states, Irish is the first official language in Ireland and for cultural and historical reasons linked to Irish identity, the study of the Irish language is a key aspect of the learning experience in Irish schools. For these reasons, Irish is a core subject in the curriculum.
However, the circular does give schools discretion in terms of the development of language teaching as it relates to each pupil’s needs, and supports a “differentiated learning experience” for pupils in an inclusive school environment.
It says the primary language curriculum provides a framework for teachers to identify a pupil’s stage of language development and to “plan interventions that support the development of language skills and competences in Irish and in English in an integrated manner, emphasising the transferability of language skills across languages”.
The circular also explicitly allows for circumstances such as those of our current population of Ukrainian families: “A pupil who has no understanding of English when enrolled should be provided with intensive English as an additional language (EAL) in preparation for his/her full engagement with the curriculum at a level commensurate with his/her ability.”
So, while mandatory, it is clear that there is discretion given to the school and the individual teacher to both respect our prioritisation of Irish-language education and recognise the unique circumstances of our Ukrainian guests.
Hopefully, younger Ukrainian children will gain an appropriate understanding and appreciation of our official language.