A bad start to an important debate

 

"There is enough segregation in Irish schools without adding this to it." So said Fine Gael's Brian Hayes in June when making the case against allowing students wear the Islamic headscarf in State schools. Yet in recent days he deployed the same term - this time approvingly - while arguing that immigrant children should not be placed in mainstream classes until they have the language skills to cope.

Mr Hayes says now that he regrets his choice of the word "segregation" but an experienced politician should know better than to broach a delicate topic with such freighted language, laden with the historical imagery of state-sanctioned separation along racial lines. He has stirred only controversy and important issues have been lost in the fray.

That is a shame because the question of language-learning is a debate worth having. Recent immigration means that over 60,000 students in the school system come from foreign backgrounds, bringing opportunities but also new pressures into the classroom, especially in areas with big immigrant populations. With so much at stake, ensuring that all children can get the most from the system should rank among our top priorities.

The international evidence shows that, in most rich countries, immigrants and their offspring are well behind the indigenous population in educational attainment, and that learning the language of instruction - English or Irish in this case - is the key to closing the gap. According to a study of data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, published last year by the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, the few countries that are consistently successful at bringing immigrant students to the same attainment levels as their native peers, notably Canada, Australia and Sweden, have certain common features. One is an intensive preparatory phase where new immigrants arriving in secondary school can focus on language development, the goal being to help students make the transition to mainstream instruction as quickly as possible. It is entirely legitimate to debate whether Irish secondary schools should follow suit.

The Government's preference is to absorb newcomers in mainstream classrooms from the outset while providing them with language support. But international experience suggests this only works when the language programmes are systematic, with explicit standards in place. Here, progress is painfully slow. The Department of Education has paid for 2,000 language support teachers but they have little training and they lack adequate materials or assessment tests. The department has not begun to draft long-promised guidelines for schools on how to deal with diversity and, 12 years after this became a country of net immigration, it protests that it is awaiting three more reports on language learning. Moreover, a task force to generate ideas on issues such as these, promised a year ago by Minister for Integration Conor Lenihan, has yet to be established.

Ministers are fond of professing gravely the need to learn from others and to get it right on integration from the beginning. But by their inaction over issues that have been with us for years, they risk turning an opportunity into an exercise in procrastination.