Report reveals student support for compulsory Irish

USI research shows only 5 per cent of students who attended English-medium schools said an emphasis was placed on Irish as a living language

A majority of third-level students surveyed by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) favour retaining Irish as a compulsory subject for the Leaving Certificate.

The USI Report on the Teaching of Irish 2021 provides insights into the effectiveness of Irish-language education in creating proficient Irish speakers and measures the attitudes of those who have recently left school towards the teaching of the language.

Over two thirds (67 per cent) of respondents said Irish should be fully compulsory as a school subject while just 5 per cent said an emphasis was placed on teaching Irish as a living language outside of the classroom.

“The aim of the research was to highlight the need to reform how Irish is taught in the education system and gauge students’ opinions on the curriculum specifically at Leaving Cert level,” said Clíodhna Ní Dhufaigh, leas-uachtarán don Ghaeilge, USI, and author of the report.

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“We believe there is a clear appetite from students to learn Irish and to be able to speak the language, and it seems many understand that making it optional is not the solution to improving how it’s taught,” said Ní Dhufaigh.

The research was carried out between October 2018 and January 2019, and 1,539 people took part in the survey which was promoted through Students’ Unions, na Cumainn Ghaelacha, and Conradh na Gaeilge.

A number of different avenues were used to encourage students to participate such as promotion through local students’ unions and through USI social media.

Respondents previously attended English-medium schools (79 per cent), Irish-medium schools outside of the Gaeltacht (13 per cent) and Irish-medium schools in located in Gaeltacht areas (8 per cent).

Of those who participated, 61 per cent spoke only English at home, 3 per cent came from homes where Irish was spoken all the time and 9 per cent came from homes where both Irish and English were spoken.

Emphasis

Asked about the standard of the syllabuses and how they aided language learning, 7 per cent believed they adequately aided students to learn Irish, 61 per cent felt that certain elements of the course were helpful while 33 per cent said that the syllabuses didn’t help with learning the language whatsoever.

Overall, a majority (54 per cent) said no emphasis was placed on teaching Irish as a living language outside of the classroom while 21 per cent of respondents said they were encouraged to speak or use Irish outside of the classroom.

Only 5 per cent of students who attended an English-medium school said an emphasis was placed on teaching Irish as a living language outside of school. This compares to 80 per cent of those who attended Irish-medium schools outside of the Gaeltacht and 73 per cent of those who attended Irish-medium schools in the Gaeltacht.

A quarter of those surveyed felt a significant emphasis was placed on Irish as a school subject, 22 per cent felt that some teachers placed an emphasis on Irish as a school subject, 44 per cent said it was treated as a regular school subject while 9 per cent said that little emphasis was placed on Irish in school.

Of the respondents who attended an English-medium school (1,152 people), 11 per cent said that a significant emphasis was placed on Irish as a school subject. This compares to 78 per cent of those who attended Irish-medium schools outside of the Gaeltacht and 75 per cent of 120 respondents who attended Irish-medium schools in the Gaeltacht.

Proficiency

When asked about the effectiveness of Irish-medium schooling, 86 per cent felt Irish-medium schools were good at producing proficient speakers, with 14 per cent saying they didn’t create proficient speakers. Of those who attended Irish-medium schools, 93 per cent believed they managed to create proficient speakers, with 7 per cent believing they didn’t manage to achieve that level of proficiency.

Of all students surveyed, 21 per cent said they were fluent in Irish after finishing secondary school, 41 per cent said they were reasonably fluent, 30 per cent said they could string a few sentences together, 7 had no fluency while 2 per cent had yet to complete the Leaving Certificate.

Of those who attended English-medium schools, 8 per cent said they were fluent in Irish after the Leaving Certificate, 45 per cent felt they were somewhat fluent while 8 per cent felt they had no fluency.

This compares to 66 per cent of those who attended Irish-medium schools outside the Gaeltacht who said they were fluent on leaving secondary school and 27 per cent who said they were reasonably fluent. In Gaeltacht areas, 77 per cent of those who attended Irish-medium schools said they were fluent in Irish when they left secondary school and 18 per cent said they were reasonably fluent.

Compulsory subject

Asked whether Irish should remain compulsory in both primary and secondary school, 67 per cent of those surveyed said it should be a compulsory subject in both. Just over a quarter (26 per cent) felt it should be compulsory up to the Junior Certificate while 7 per cent felt Irish should be optional throughout.

Of those who attended English-medium schools, 63 per cent said Irish should be a compulsory throughout, 29 per cent said it should be compulsory up until Junior Certificate level while 8 per cent said it shouldn’t be compulsory at any stage.

This compared to eighty per cent of respondents who attended Irish-medium schools outside of the Gaeltacht who felt Irish should be compulsory, 16 per cent who felt it should be optional after the Junior Certificate and 4 per cent that indicated it should be optional throughout.

Support was highest among students who attended schools in the Gaeltacht with 88 per cent saying it should be compulsory while 8 per cent believed it should be compulsory up until Junior Certificate level and 5 per cent believed it should be optional throughout.

Gaelscoileanna

Attitudes towards Irish-medium schools were positive among respondents who who attended English schools as well as among those who attended Irish-medium schools. Of those who attended English-medium schools, 67 per cent had a positive view of Irish-medium schools, 7 per cent had a negative opinion, while 7 per cent recorded no opinion.

Of those who attended Irish-medium schools outside of the Gaeltacht, 94 per cent said they had a positive experience, 1 per cent had a negative experience and 5 per cent had no opinion on the matter.

The research revealed a high degree of support among students for Irish-medium education with 77 per cent of all participants saying they would send their child to a Gaelscoil in the future. Of the participants who attended a Gaelscoil, almost all (98 per cent) said they would send their children to a Gaelscoil.

Stark

Ms Ní Dhufaigh said the statistics on the emphasis placed on Irish as a living language outside the classroom were “quite stark but also not surprising”.

“Many of the respondents expressed a desire for more emphasis to be put on the spoken language and listening and reading comprehension as opposed to the written aspect and literature.”

She said people are realising the benefits of learning the language despite the lack of emphasis on the language as a living language in schools.

“With social media and more resources available to young people outside of the classroom, it seems young people are beginning to see the benefit of learning Irish when engaging with it outside of school, despite evidence that while in school very little emphasis is placed on this aspect of the language.”

“While some students who participated may have a positive view of Irish as a living language from their own experience in college or in the coláistí samhraidh in school, it’s clear participants also recognise the issues with how Irish is currently being taught and acknowledge the need to reform it if we are to keep the language alive,” said Ní Dhufaigh.

The research carried out by Aoife Ní Dheisigh who was USI’s leas-uachtarán don Ghaeilge 2018-2019.

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí

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