Feeder Schools: Irish-medium education a feature of top progression tables

There is a significant shortage of post-primary schools that teach through Irish

An examination of the list of secondary schools sending the higherst proportion of their students to third level reveals that four of the top 20 schools featured are Irish-medium schools (where all subjects are taught through Irish).

This compares with six non-fee-paying schools that teach through the medium of English.

Of the 10 schools that feature at the top of the mixed schools list, four are Irish medium. Four of the 10 schools at the top of the list of non-fee paying schools are also Irish medium.

The occurrence of so many Irish-medium schools at the upper end of these tables is especially notable when it is considered that of the 720 schools registered with the Department of Education to provide post-primary education to our children, just 49 teach all of their subjects through Irish.

Despite the small number of Irish-medium schools, demand continues to grow as parents wish to see their children avail of the benefits of bilingual education.

An analysis of 42 schools where students sat the Leaving Certificate this year and where all subjects are taught through Irish reveals that 86 per cent of students went on to third level.

This compares to an average progression rate of 75 per cent for the remaining schools (including fee-paying schools).

So why is this the case? While it is difficult to draw any conclusions there are a number of factors worth considering. Research has long shown the positive impact of bilingualism on performance when it comes to reading comprehension and language development in children.

A study published by the University of Limerick in 2011 found that learning mathematics through the medium of Irish at primary level may enhance long-term mathematical understanding and attainment.

Increasing awareness among parents of the potential advantages of bilingualism along with the popularity of Irish-medium schools at primary level has also contributed to the demand for access to Irish-medium education at secondary level.

"The benefits of bilingual education have been proven time and time again both here in Ireland and internationally," says Caoimhín Ó hEaghra, general secretary of school patron An Foras Patrúnachta.

Children come through the system fluent in Irish along with associated cultural benefits and awareness, he says.

“Add on top of this the capacity to more easily learn a third or fourth language, improved academic and cognitive performance, increased social skills, self-esteem and much, much more,” Ó hEaghra adds.

The recent introduction to some English-medium primary, secondary and pre-schools of a scheme that will see a second subject – such as physical education, maths and art – being taught through Irish should result in more pupils having the opportunity to benefit from the bilingual approach.

New schools

Of the 560,000 children currently attending over 3,100 mainstream primary schools in Ireland, Department of Education figures show that 45,000 – or just over 8 per cent – attend 247 primary schools that teach through Irish. Department figures show that 362,899 students were in second-level education in 2019. Of these, 13,000 students attend Irish-medium secondary schools.

Research has shown that 23 per cent of parents would choose Irish-medium education for their children if it was available to them. Yet, unlike those who have the option of sending their children to English-medium schools, many do not have schooling through Irish available to them in their local community.

While the numbers attending Irish-medium education drop significantly once the primary cycle has been completed, only three post-primary schools have been established since 2011.

“There is a huge anomaly between the number of primary and post-primary schools run through the medium of Irish,” says Bláthnaid Ní Ghréacháin, chief executive of Gaelscoileanna Teo, a national voluntary organisation supporting the development of Irish-medium schools.

“The lack of opportunities to continue education at post-primary level through the immersion model can be very discouraging for pupils and is clearly a missed opportunity to enjoy the academic, social and linguistic benefits of a bilingual education,” she says.

The majoritarian method by which school patrons for new schools have been chosen has been criticised for being numerically weighted in favour of the patron body that collects the most expressions of interest in a given area.

A 2017 investigation into the process by the office of An Coimisinéir Teanga (Irish language Ombudsman) prompted the Department of Education to recommend changes to how the process operates.

Under new criteria announced in September, a primary school being established in an area with a growing population in which there is already provision for English-medium education, will automatically be a gaelscoil if the local population has no access to an existing one.

Despite these changes, access to post-primary education through Irish will continue to be limited.

“The shortfall can only be addressed by the Department of Education sanctioning new Irish-medium post-primary schools,” says Ní Ghréacháin.

The policy change has attracted some criticism from the English-language sector, with patron body Educate Together saying that under the new arrangements it would not apply to run two schools due to be established next year.

Parents and language groups concerned by what they see as a fragmented approach to Irish-medium education are calling on the department to adopt a dedicated policy that would help co-ordinate the provision of Irish-language education from pre-school to third-level.

A recent dispute at Coláiste Lú, an Irish-medium unit or aonad at the larger English-medium host school Coláiste Cú Chulainn in Dundalk, highlighted the issue.

A number of aonaid have been established at larger English-language schools in recent years where the department has determined it is not feasible to establish a stand-alone post-primary school but where demand exists for some Irish-medium provision.

Critics claim that the aonad model is unsustainable as it leaves the unit at the mercy of the host school which may or may not align the needs and interests of the Irish-language unit along with its own.

“We are currently awaiting the announcement as to whether parental preference for Irish-medium post-primary education, by way of a standalone independent school, as opposed to an Irish-medium unit in an English-medium host school has been taken seriously into account,” says Ní Ghréacháin.

“Only by increasing the number of Irish-medium post-primary schools can we expect more pupils to have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of an immersion education,” she says.

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