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Surge in number of exemptions for study of Irish at second level

Principal questions whether relaxation of rules is ‘stealthy plan to kill Irish by slow death’

The number of students securing exemptions for the study of Irish at second level has increased significantly in recent years.

The number of Junior Cycle students availing of exemptions has climbed from 6,696 in 2019 to 8,932 in 2022 (a 33 per cent increase), while the number of Leaving Certificate students with exemptions is up from 6,931 to 8,447 (a 22 per cent increase).

Overall, student numbers at second level have increased by 3 to 4 per cent over the same period.

Irish remains a core subject, but students are entitled to apply to opt out in “exceptional circumstances” if they have learning difficulties, special needs or have lived abroad for long periods.


Minister for Education Norma Foley has attributed the bulk of the increase in exemptions to the growth in learners with special needs, as well as the arrival of thousands of students from Ukraine and other countries.

Under changes introduced in 2019, principals are responsible for issuing exemptions and pupils no longer need psychological assessments.

Revised rules issued last year comprise new criteria for granting exemptions, including a “pupil who experiences a high level of multiple and persistent needs that are a significant barrier to the pupil’s participation and engagement in their learning and school life”.

However, Barbara Ennis, principal of Alexandra College in Dublin, said the recent changes threaten to “ruin the language” and questioned whether it was a “stealthy plan to kill Irish by slow death”.

Ms Ennis said the inclusion of anxiety as a ground for an exemption was “the most difficult and ambiguous” criterion of all.

“Irish can make you anxious, but not French, German or any other second language? It’s time we stood up against this unmanageable situation for the sake of our teachers, students and the language itself,” she said.

Some Irish language activists have also warned that moves to relax the rules around securing Irish exemptions could be a “back door” to making the language an optional subject in future.

The Minister for Education has defended the revised process. Ms Foley told an Oireachtas committee that exemptions were only granted after “considerable interventions” take place in schools and that the overall number of students with exemptions accounted for about 10.5 per cent of students at second level and 2 per cent at primary.

Ms Foley attributed the greater numbers availing of exemptions to a better understanding of special educational needs.

“We know so much more now about special education than we did if you go back to the 1990s,” Ms Foley said.

“That time in our schools we had 104 special education teachers and 229 SNAs (special needs assistants). Today we have 19,000 special education teachers and 20,000 SNAs and that is because our understanding of special education has advanced tenfold.”

Ms Foley also noted that there has been an “enormous increase” in the number of students coming from other countries. About 18,000 students from Ukraine alone are estimated to have joined Irish schools since March 2022.

Critics have questioned the rationale for allowing subject exemptions for Irish when a large number of the same students go on to study other languages such as French or German in the Leaving Cert.

However, groups such as the Dyslexia Association of Ireland say there are genuine reasons why many students with Irish exemptions are studying a European language.

It has said that students with dyslexia need additional time and learning support to build their literacy skills in English at primary level, and many who make significant progress by the time they reach second level may then feel able to tackle a second language.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent