Number of Irish exemptions given to students drops under new rules

New system permits opt-outs in ‘exceptional circumstances’ only

Under the new system, students in special schools or classes are automatically exempt. Photograph: Getty

Under the new system, students in special schools or classes are automatically exempt. Photograph: Getty

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Fewer secondary school students are securing exemptions for learning Irish since new rules were introduced two years ago.

The system of opt-outs was overhauled following a Department of Education review which found it was no longer fit for purpose.

It found there was a wide variety of different practices among schools which had the authority to grant Irish exemptions, with an increasing number of pupils securing opt-outs on the basis of “stress or anxiety”.

Under the new system, Irish remains compulsory in school and opt-outs are available in “exceptional circumstances” for pupils from abroad or with learning difficulties.

Latest figures show there was an 11 per cent drop in exemptions awarded to students since the revised rules were introduced, down from 11,717 to 10,439 over the past two years. This is against a backdrop of rising enrolments at second level.

The body representing school principals said the fall in numbers was likely due to greater clarity over who is eligible for an exemption.

“Under the old rules, there was a sense that principals had more discretion over providing exemptions,” said Clive Byrne of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals.

“The guidelines laid down are now very clear and require documentary evidence to support exemptions.”

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Psychologists’ reports

Another key reason behind the changes was a concern that psychologists’ reports and outdated rules based on IQ levels were being used to determine whether students with learning difficulties should receive exemptions.

Under the new system, students in special schools or classes are automatically exempt and pupils no longer need psychological assessments to secure an exemption from studying Irish.

Standardised tests are now the main method to determine if students are eligible for opt-outs and these students are required to show documentary evidence that the problems have been persistent over time.

Students with learning difficulties must show, for example, 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 rules for students from abroad state that they are entitled to exemptions if their primary education was received outside the State up to the age of 11-12, or if they spent three years abroad after the age of 11.

Latest figures show there has been an increase in the number of students with learning difficulties securing exemptions, but a decline in the students from abroad securing exemptions.

For example, the number of exemptions under the category of learning disabilities has increased from 5,075 to 6,250 between 2018-2019 and 2020-2021, while the numbers from abroad are down from 5,373 to 4,193.

The new system also includes an appeals procedure for those who feel they were unfairly denied an exemption.

Latest figures show that of the 141 appeals to date, the vast majority – 118 – of decisions have been upheld.

‘Fairer system’

The Dyslexia Association of Ireland said it welcomed the overall changes which had created a fairer system.

“The old system for Irish exemptions was not fit for purpose,” said the association’s chief executive, Rosie Bissett.

“The new criteria is in the best interest of children with learning disabilities. It has removed unfair barriers around children’s IQ and it is more in line with what we know now about learning disabilities. The removal of the need for a psychologist’s report is also positive and it means there is no economic barrier any more.”

Some in the Irish language community have opposed the measures, with groups warning the rules were a “back door” to making Irish an optional subject in the future.

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