Bill will stop Gaelscoileanna prioritising naíonra pupils
Admissions legislation aiming at greater fairness in Irish school enrolment
Minister for Education Richard Bruton: draft legislation prohibits schools from applying a priority in admission based on attendance at a specific pre-school. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Gaelscoileanna will no longer be able to prioritise places for children from Irish-speaking pre-schools under new school admissions legislation.
Currently, a key attraction among parents for naíonraí – which provide pre-school education exclusively through Irish – is their potential to provide a route into oversubscribed Gaelscoileanna.
Almost 5,000 children outside the Gaeltacht attend more than 260 pre-school services where all interaction with the children is through Irish.
However, a new Education (Admission to Schools) Bill will prohibit schools from giving priority to children based on their attendance at a specific pre-school.
Bláthnaid Ní Ghréacháin, chief executive of Gaeloideachas, a voluntary organisation that supports the development of Irish-medium schools, said the move will harm development of the language.
She said the planned changes will undermine the ability of naíonraí and schools to promote a full four years of immersion in Irish – two years of immersion in the naíonra and two in the infant classes in school – which is recognised internationally as best practice.
“Naíonraí are a vulnerable minority in an early-years sector that’s already at breaking point,” she said.
In a statement, a spokesman for the Department of Education confirmed that the draft legislation prohibits schools from applying a priority in admission based on attendance at a specific pre-school.
The rules are aimed at ensuring greater fairness and transparency in school enrolment policies.
Ms Ní Ghréacháin said difficulties facing the early-years sector – such as underfunding and the recruitment and retention of qualified staff – are magnified further for naíonraí.
“Many naíonraí are reliant on their relationship with their local Irish-medium primary schools and work with them to agree common aims, teaching methods and supported transitions,” she said.
“Some also rely on their relationship with the school for practical support around accommodation and administration.”
She added: “Even though they’re recognised as being of huge importance to the future of the Irish language by the State . . . few if any practical measures are being taken to ensure their viability or to mitigate the negative impact the proposed admissions Bill will have on them.”
Figures compiled by Gaelscoileanna indicate that about 35 per cent of Irish-medium schools outside the Gaeltacht are over-subscribed, especially in urban or commuter belt areas.
The issue of whether Gaelscoileanna can prioritise children where Irish is the dominant language in the home is a separate matter being examined by department officials. Most Gaelscoileanna allow for children in these settings to be prioritised in their admission policies, but say they account for just 3 per cent of their admissions.
Minister for Education Richard Bruton has indicated he will amend draft admissions legislation to allow for an exemption to be made for these students (where Irish is the dominant language in the home). This matter is being considered by the Attorney General, according to Department of Education sources, and an “appropriate” amendment is due when the legislation is next debated in the Oireachtas.