Analysis: Compulsory Irish review shines light on ‘sacred cow’ of education

Flawed exemption process shows students try to ditch language ahead of Leaving Cert

Lined up on one side are those who see the rule as crucial to keeping the language alive; they fear that removing compulsion will see students desert the language in droves. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Lined up on one side are those who see the rule as crucial to keeping the language alive; they fear that removing compulsion will see students desert the language in droves. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

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

Significantly, the proportion of students availing of this opt-out peaked dramatically in fifth year, when the Leaving Cert curriculum begins.

The trend opens up the question of whether students are genuinely securing exemptions, or are they ditching what they perceive to be a “difficult” subject.

It’s a question which is set to feature in a review of the “policy and practice in relation to exemptions from Irish” by the Department of Education.

The review itself seems to be a tacit acknowledgment that the process of securing exemptions from Irish is flawed.

Another area to be examined, for example, is granting of exemptions from studying Irish on the grounds of special educational needs.

While there are sound policy reasons behind it, figures show that thousands of those students who secure exemptions end up sitting exams in foreign languages.

There are many who support the language but feel compulsion is hindering, rather than helping, the language

Some education sources say these figures show the system is being “gamed” to avoid what some students perceive to be a highly challenging Leaving Cert subject.

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 foreign language in secondary school.

Public consultation

Either way, these issues are set to feature in public consultation soon over the exemptions that apply for Irish.

Even though it might not be the aim, it is likely to rekindle one of the most heated debates in Irish education policy: compulsory Irish.

Lined up on one side are those who see the rule as crucial to keeping the language alive; they fear that removing compulsion will see students desert the language in droves.

They point to the growing popularity of gaelscoileanna as a sign of progress and insist that surveys show that demand for Irish education far exceeds the supply.

Irish remains a sacred cow of Irish education policy – whether there is an appetite to sacrifice it remains to be seen

On the other hand, there are many who support the language but feel compulsion is hindering, rather than helping, the language. They argue that students need to be partners in the education process rather than unwilling participants.

President Michael D Higgins waded into the debate last year during a visit to New Zealand, where there is a debate on whether Maori should be obligatory.

‘Encouraging’

When asked for his opinion, he said: “I am in favour of encouraging people, bringing people to the language rather than forcing it.”

Regardless of where you stand on the debate, it’s hard to make the case that compulsion has been a success.

Compulsory Irish was introduced in 1934 at a time when some politicians were hopeful the language could replace English within a generation.

It never happened, of course, and the policy of compulsion was watered down in the early 1970s to allow students to pass the Leaving Cert.

While it is still compulsory for students to study Irish language classes for the Leaving Certificate, it is not compulsory to sit the exam.

Irish remains a sacred cow of Irish education policy – whether there is an appetite to sacrifice it remains to be seen.