Irish exemptions to be made available in ‘exceptional circumstances’
New directive for pupils receives mixed response from education groups
Any pupil seeking an exemption on the grounds of a learning difficulty will have to show documentary evidence that these problems have been persistent over time. Photograph: Getty
Schools should only provide exemptions to students for the study of Irish in “exceptional circumstances”, according to the wording of new directive being issued by the Department of Education to all schools.
Earlier this month, Minister for Education Joe McHugh announced details over an overhaul of the system of awarding exemptions, but did not include a detailed wording of how the new rules will operate.
The wording of the circular has been anticipated in education circles for some time to get a sense of how strict the new exemption rules will be in practice.
Under revised rules, Irish will remain compulsory in schools and opt-outs will continue to be made available for pupils with learning difficulties or who have spent long periods outside the State.
In a relation of rules, students in special schools or classes will be automatically exempt and pupils will no longer need psychological assessments to secure an exemption from studying Irish.
Instead, standardised tests will be the main method to determine if students are eligible for opt-outs.
The circular issued on Friday states that any pupil seeking an exemption on the grounds of a learning difficulty will have to show documentary evidence that these problems have been persistent over time.
In addition, a student must show that their standardised score for reading, comprehension or spelling is at or below that of the bottom 10 per cent of students in mainstream schools.
The circular also confirms that school principals will be required to process applications and that any refusals may be appealed to an independent “Irish exemptions appeal committee”.
The wording has attracted a mixed response from Irish language groups and support groups for those with additional learning needs.
Gaeloideachas, a voluntary organisation that supports the development of Irish-medium schools, said it was “alarmed” the new rules will automatically exempt children attending special classes and special schools.
“ We fully acknowledge that for some children with significant learning difficulties learning Irish may not be suitable,” said Bláthnaid ní Ghréacháin of Gaeloideachas.
“However, research evidence confirms that - given the right supports - children with additional learning needs can benefit from learning Irish, and we know from our school communities that for some students, it is learning Irish that allows them to thrive.”
She also warned that principals will be placed under “undue pressure” to provide exemptions and that “no provision has been made for training to help them to manage this”.
However, the Dyslexia Association of Ireland welcomed the details of the new circular.
Rosie Bissett, the association’s chief executive, said the new criteria will “ help to create a more equitable and fairer educational system for children with dyslexia”.
In particular, she welcomed the fact that exemptions will be based on identified needs and not necessarily on a particular diagnosis, such as dyslexia.
“We welcome the fact that a psychological report will no longer be required, neither will any measure of IQ or cognitive ability,” she said.
“We have been asking for this change for many years. It is in line with the overwhelming evidence that dyslexia is not meaningfully linked with IQ. This change also supports equity of access, as we know that access to a formal diagnosis is often linked to financial means.”
She said the move to ensure an exempt child should have a standardised score at or below the 10th percentile in reading, reading comprehension or spelling was a “marked change” .
“The broadening of this criteria is one that the association has been strongly advocating for over several years,” Ms Bissett said.