Irish exemptions: Will changes spell the end of compulsory Irish?

The heated debate on mandatory Irish in the classroom was rekindled this week

Minister for Education Joe McHugh: says the reforms will make the process fairer and that safeguards are in place to ensure any decision to grant an exemption ‘should not be taken lightly’. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Minister for Education Joe McHugh: says the reforms will make the process fairer and that safeguards are in place to ensure any decision to grant an exemption ‘should not be taken lightly’. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

This week the Minister for Education announced a relaxation of the system for awarding exemptions from studying Irish.

On the face of it, it might not seem like a such a big deal. Irish will remain compulsory in the education system and opt-outs will continue to be made available on the basis of special needs, learning disabilities or if a child has spent a long period outside the State.

However, the move to make it easier for children with special needs or learning disabilities to secure these exemptions has prompted some feverish speculation. Could the new system, over time, result in the end of compulsory Irish due to a free-for-all among students desperate to escape what’s often seen as a difficult subject?

It is too early to say for sure – and the answer will be in the detail of new guidelines to be issued to schools by the Department of Education over the coming days.

Regardless, the changes are rekindling one of the most heated debates in education policy circles: the status of mandatory Irish in the classroom.

Compulsion

The policy was introduced in 1934 at a time when some politicians hoped the language would replace English within a generation. It never happened, of course, and the policy of compulsion ended up being watered down in the early 1970s.

Under this change – which still in place – it became compulsory for students to study Irish up to Leaving Cert, but it was no longer compulsory to actually sit the exam: an Irish solution, if you like, to an Irish problem.

The system of exemptions was introduced in the mid-1990s, in recognition of difficulties facing special needs students and those from abroad.

Some question whether we should simply get rid of the exemptions system and let students choose for themselves. However, any suggestion that the policy of compulsion should be ended has been met with a firm “no” by successive ministers of education.

Many others support the language but feel compulsion is hindering rather than helping it

In the debate over whether to continue the policy, there tends to be little middle ground. Lined up on one side are those who see the rule as crucial to keeping the language alive; they fear 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.

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

Not fit for purpose

What is not in doubt is that the current system of exemptions has not been fit for purpose for years. Almost 40,000 pupils in schools avail of Irish exemptions.

Exemptions peak approaching State exams in secondary schools, prompting many to suggest that the system is being “gamed”.

Many of those who avail of exemptions go on to study other European languages; some manage to get opt-outs on the basis of stress or anxiety linked to study of the language; school principals and psychologists also report being placed under pressure by parents to supply sympathetic reports endorsing the need for an exemption.

Groups representing people with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, however, insist that they are not gaming the system. They point out, for example, that they legitimately study other European languages having missed out on Irish during primary school.

In any case, a department review of the exemptions system last year found it was “not fit for purpose”. It also found wide variety of different practices and arrangements among schools that have the authority to grant Irish exemptions under official rules, while there was confusion in interpreting exemption rules set out in official circulars.

This prompted the Minister for Education, Joe McHugh, this week to announce a series of changes aimed at simplifying rules around Irish exemptions, especially in the areas of disabilities and special needs.

Exemptions will be awarded on the basis of standardised tests in schools on reading and comprehension

Students with special needs or learning disabilities in mainstream schools will no longer require a psychologist’s report (and those in special schools or classes will be able to avail of an automatic exemption).

A child’s IQ will also no longer be used as a diagnostic tool, which is considered to be an outdated mode of assessing a child’s learning ability.

Instead, exemptions will be awarded on the basis of standardised tests in schools on reading and comprehension. Exemptions will be awarded by school principals, and there will also be an appeals system for the first time.

Dramatic spike

So will these changes lead to a dramatic spike in the numbers securing exemptions?

McHugh, a strong supporter of compulsory Irish, says the reforms will make it fairer and that safeguards are in place to ensure any decision to grant an exemption “should not be taken lightly’’.

The Irish language community, however, has generally seen the changes as negative. Gaeloideachas, a voluntary organisation that supports the development of Irish-medium schools, says there is a risk the new rules will be a “back door” to making Irish an optional subject in the future.

It says automatic exemptions for special-needs pupils sent out a “problematic message” that Irish-medium education was not suitable for students with special educational needs.

The Dyslexia Association of Ireland, by contrast, welcomes the changes, which it says will help create a fairer system. “The old Irish exemption criteria was not fit for purpose and we look forward to the implementation of new criteria which we have been very involved in advocating for,” says the association’s chief executive, Rosie Bissett.

By relying on standardised tests, instead of psychologists’ reports, it could make it more difficult to game the system

Most informed sources say they expect the number of exemptions to rise among those with learning difficulties; however, some say the absence of the need for a psychologist’s report could make it harder for other pupils to game the system.

“Principals will still come under pressure from parents to award exemptions if they feel it will benefit their child in the run-up to exams,” says one source. “But by relying on standardised tests, instead of psychologists’ reports, it could make it more difficult to game the system.”

Another says the wording of the new guidelines will be critical. “Any weakness or wriggle-room will be exploited. There’s no doubt about that,” says one.

Wider debate

It is inevitable, meanwhile. that a wider debate over whether to keep Irish mandatory will continue to rumble.

There is little doubt that the language is not as important as it used to be in accessing third level or securing a public sector job.

Irish is no longer required to gain access to most third level courses. While a pass is required for entry to National University of Ireland colleges such as UCD, UCC and NUI Galway, it is not required for other universities or institutes of technology.

I am in favour of encouraging people, bringing people to the language rather than forcing it

The requirement to have Irish for the civil service has long since been dropped.

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

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

Enda Kenny, when leader of the opposition a decade or so ago, proposed to end the policy of compulsion at Junior Cert. It stoked up a vigorous debate, along with protests from Irish language groups. The policy ended up being quietly dropped when he entered government a few years later.

For now, mandatory Irish remains a sacred cow of our education policy. Whether politicians will be prepared to sacrifice it remains to be seen.