Call for Leaving Cert Irish proposals to be set aside

Committee told specifications will not meet the needs of the various target groups

Draft proposals to change the specifications for Leaving Cert Irish should be set aside in favour of a fairer system that caters for all students, the Committee on the Irish Language, Gaeltacht and the Irish-speaking Community has heard.

The authors of a new discussion paper critical of proposals by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) which would see the introduction of two new specifications at senior cycle level came before the Oireachtas committee on Wednesday.

Under the NCCA proposals, “Teanga 1” (T1) would mean the introduction of a more challenging syllabus designed for Irish medium schools and schools located in Gaeltacht areas, while “Teanga 2” (T2) would be less challenging and designed for pupils attending English medium schools.

Bonnleibhéal (foundation Irish) would no longer be examined under the proposals while marks allocated for the oral exam would also be reduced.

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Similar structural changes were introduced for Irish at Junior Cert level in 2017. But due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic students undertaking the new course have yet to undergo state examinations in the subject.

“The NCCA did not review the new “T1” and “T2” model at junior cycle level before specifications were determined for the senior cycle based on that same model,” co-author of the discussion paper, Fíona Uí Uiginn, told the committee.

“The [Department of Education’s] policy on Gaeltacht education states that specifications would not be introduced at senior level until differentiated specifications for Irish at junior cycle have been developed and are working well in schools.”

Critics say these changes will result in students seeking a derogation from Irish if they are not catered to by the courses on offer while others will be turned away from undertaking the more challenging T1 course unless, as is the case with higher-level Mathematics, they are in someway incentivised to undertake the additional work.

Concerns have also been raised that there are no plans to pilot the new specifications as was the case with the new for Project Maths course.

Discussion paper

Earlier on Wednesday, 14 Irish language organisations, including teacher representative groups, launched a discussion paper featuring alternative proposals to those published by the NCCA in February.

Report authors Ms Uí Uiginn, who is a board member of Gaeloideachas and a former secondary school principal of Dublin’s Coláiste Íosagáin, and Prof Áine Hyland came before the committee, along with NUI Maynooth’s Aoife Ní Ghloinn and Siuán Ní Mhaonaigh, to discuss the NCCA proposals and recommendations relating to the discussion document. Shane Ó Coinn, chairman of An Gréasán do Mhuinteoirí Gaeilge, also spoke.

Critics have said the latest proposals should be set aside in the absence of evidence-based data on the related junior cycle syllabus and of the suitability of that structure for the Leaving Certificate.

“We believe [the junior cycle] review should be complete and the findings should be made available before the same model is adopted at senior level,” Ms Uí Uiginn told the Oireachtas committee.

Emerita professor of education and former vice-president of University College Cork, Áine Hyland, said the template being used by the NCCA is "not suitable" and is causing concern among teachers.

“Teachers are worried about this, as are parents and students. It is not just Irish teachers but teachers of other subjects are also worried,” she said.

“I wrote to the NCCA about this four or five times but they don’t listen. This was coming down the road. It was clear when this template was first revealed that it was not at all suitable for the Leaving Cert. No other country in the world uses such a template. Templates such as this are never used for senior cycle.”

“They must put [it] aside and start again,” she said.

Bonnleibhéal

Concerns have been raised over plans to end bonnleibhéal (foundation) as part of the new approach with critics saying the decision neglects the learning needs of weaker students.

“This is an important level as it serves the learning requirements of a cohort of pupils who are not particularly strong at Irish,” said Ms Uí Uiginn. Instead of abolishing foundation level, she said differentiated specifications are needed to meet the needs of different cohorts of students.

“It is every pupil’s right to have a course available to them that is suited to their ability. If this does not happen, there is a strong possibility that there will be a big increase in the number of students seeking a derogation from Irish for the Leaving Cert.”

Questions have also been raised about the nature of the T1 course and whether it would be compulsory for students attending Irish medium or Gaeltacht schools.

“Students are very strategic at Leaving Cert level,” said Ms Uí Uiginn.

“We should be realistic about this. If it is hoped that they will undertake more challenging examinations at this level, encouragement in the form of CAO points should be available to them,” she added.

Alternative options

Prof Hyland and Ms Uí Uiginn outlined two alternatives to the NCCA proposals in their discussion paper. One option would be based on the Common European Framework of Reference with an advanced level option, while the second choice would be an additional subject – similar to applied maths – called Saíocht agus Litríocht na Gaeilge or Irish Language, Culture and Literature.

Both suggestions would mean retention of a reformed foundation level Irish.

Speaking ahead of this afternoon’s committee hearing, Julian de Spáinn, general secretary of Conradh na Gaeilge said: “The groups involved in commissioning this discussion document are calling on the Taoiseach, Minister for Education and other politicians to get involved in this consultation to ensure that the current proposals from the NCCA for Irish Leaving Cert specifications, which are under consultation at the moment, are rejected and the opportunity that this consultation presents is grasped.”

The NCCA consultation on the draft specifications for Leaving Certificate Irish L1 and L2 is open at ncca.ie until 5pm on November 30th.

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí is an Irish Times journalist and editor of the Irish Times Student Hub