Should children of returning emigrants be exempt from Irish?

Some parents want their kids to learn Irish, while others are relieved by the exemption

Veronica Fegan-Smith, her husband Tom and their children Griffin, Fiona, Erin and Kieran moved from New York to rural Clare last year. Photograph: Eamon Ward

Veronica Fegan-Smith, her husband Tom and their children Griffin, Fiona, Erin and Kieran moved from New York to rural Clare last year. Photograph: Eamon Ward

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Is the system for exempting schoolchildren from studying Irish fair? It’s a question that goes to the heart of a forthcoming Department of Education review on the system of opt-outs that applies to learning Irish in the classroom.

Irish, controversially, remains mandatory at both primary and second level for most pupils. Students who have been abroad for a period of time or who have certain learning disabilities may be exempted under rules produced by the department and implemented by schools.

There are concerns, however, over whether some students are “gaming” the system and securing an unfair advantage over others. That is because Irish is still seen by many students as one of the most daunting and challenging subjects.

The number of students securing Irish exemptions, meanwhile, is on the rise due to a combination of greater numbers of special-needs students and more families returning or moving to Ireland.

Confusion

My interviews with returning parents – of which I am also one – indicate there is plenty of information about the exemption and how it works on Government websites and when talking to schools.

However, there is a variety of practices and arrangements in schools, as well as confusion over the implications of not doing Irish on children’s future third-level course choices or career opportunities.

(The short answer is it’s no longer essential for public-service jobs but it is a requirement for primary school teaching or Irish-language studies at third level. While Irish is mandatory for courses at NUI colleges – such as UCD, UCC, NUI Galway, Maynooth University – exemptions are also available).

Many parents report that while having an Irish exemption means their child does not have to sit the State Irish exams, it does not mean they’re necessarily exempt from sitting through Irish class at school.

Martina Keenan returned to Ireland a year ago after living in the UK for 25 years. Her son Jonathan was 14 and was well past the exemption cut-off age. He loves languages, having done Spanish since he was eight and learning some Greek from his mother, but he finds it hard to be interested in Irish.

“I don’t think it’s fair that he’s sitting in Irish class doing his homework,” says Martina.

For a bright student I am really hoping that I have not done her an injustice by accepting the exemption

“He’s the only one in that situation. He needs to be working towards his Junior Cert at this stage. They’ve agreed that after that he can start doing Latin instead of Irish.”

One mother – who declined to be named – complained that her son had to do business studies with eight other exempt students in his year as it was the only option available.

Exemption

Another mother who returned with her 11-year-old daughter to Ireland was told by the school that she would not even be able to try Irish and was advised to apply for an exemption.

Once her daughter started secondary school, the mother soon became frustrated that she was neither sitting in Irish class nor offered an alternative curriculum subject.

“For a bright student I am really hoping that I have not done her an injustice by accepting the exemption,” the mother says.

The language app Duolingo is mentioned by many parents as a helpful tool to ease the transition into Irish. 

Veronica Fegan-Smith, her husband Tom and their children Griffin, Fiona, Erin and Kieran moved from New York to rural Clare last year. The Irish-American family is enthusiastically taking on Irish life, including the language.

Their twins, Kieran and Erin, were 10 when they arrived. Both were offered the exemption by their school but it looks like one will do Irish and the other will not.

While her daughter is more resistant to learning the language and misses the Spanish she studied in the US, Veronica says that her son really wants to stick with it.

“He finds it difficult because he has no reference to go with the speech and the phonetics. But he is very bright and has been using Duolingo to assist with pronunciation,” she says.

Many returning children already have language skills from their lives abroad. One mother who moved to Sligo explained how her 12-year-old daughter took on Irish anyway.

The children themselves are very open to it, and the parents have no pre-existing negative ideas about Irish

“Having already studied French while living in Dubai, and Chinese while in the Philippines, she found the first few classes daunting and even thought of giving it up,” she said.

“But with support and encouragement from the school and a daily session on Duolingo she is really enjoying her learning experience.”

Positive

An interesting insight into how Irish can be a positive experience comes from Elaine Shanahan, a primary school teacher at an Educate Together school in west Dublin.

She taught for seven years in Chile and the US and now teaches fourth class: the age before the exemption becomes available.

She feels Irish is now more accessible than it was years ago, with interesting books and resources, and indeed more “fun” than English at the same level.

This contributes to a positive attitude to Irish in what is a very international school.

“The children themselves are very open to it, and the parents have no pre-existing negative ideas about Irish,” she says.

“They have an attitude of: it’s a European language so it must be beneficial, therefore we should be doing this.”

For those who arrive older than 11 but choose to do Irish anyway, there is little help beyond their classroom.

Governmental and language bodies do not offer any special programmes in Irish and it is up to the individual schools to deal with each case.

Bláthnaid ní Ghréacháin of Gaeloideachas, which represents Irish-medium schools, says: “The system seems to be more in support of those who choose not to do Irish in school.”

In my own experience with my daughter, we felt quite lost in attempting to find extra resources to help her catch up on missing out on seven years of Irish when she started sixth class.

The school helped as best it could, given its resources, but I was surprised to feel little encouragement from those around us for her to try to do it.

The attitude seems to be that getting the exemption is like being presented with a gift on a plate, or one less stress to get her through the Leaving Cert.

For my own family, we have come to realise that school doesn’t have to be the only place a child can learn Irish; that through the cultural and social side of life we can more easily build an ongoing relationship with our national language.

How the Irish language exemptions system works

While Irish is compulsory, opt-outs are available for pupils who have been out of the State or who have learning difficulties.

There are concerns in some education circles, however, that the system is being “gamed” by some pupils or schools.

Last year, for example, more than 1,000 pupils from abroad were able to secure exemptions from studying Irish in the run-up to the Leaving Cert.

Similarly, thousands of students were granted exemptions from studying Irish on the grounds of special educational needs and ended up sitting Leaving Cert exams in other languages.

However, special-needs groups say there are genuine reasons why many students who secure exemptions end up studying a European language.

Students with dyslexia, for example, focus on building up their literacy skills in English at primary level and may feel able to take on a new language in secondary school.

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