Gaelscoil parents want to have their cake and eat it


Supporters of the Gaelscoil movement should realise that their consumer choice has a resources downside, writes Sarah Carey. 

LAST WEEK in an effort to seek the attention but not the goodwill of Minister for Education Batt O'Keeffe, supporters of Gaelscoil Barra in Cabra travelled to his home in Cork to stage a protest. It's the usual story - prefabs, rats and awful toilets.

The protest was a cute idea - a samba drum party and letters to Santa. It lasted only 15 minutes but O'Keeffe complained that his wife was home alone at the time and the protesters went over the line. Somehow I imagine that Mrs O'Keeffe has survived harsher blows throughout her husband's career. He should have ignored them. The Gaeilscoil movement is sounding increasingly shrill to anyone outside it.

The previous week, this paper's Kate Holmquist felt its wrath by referring in a column to the "educational apartheid" that she argued was an outcome of the extra marks awarded to pupils who sit State exams through Irish. Gaelscoil leaders corrected statistics she quoted, but they cannot ignore the fact that their movement is responsible for social apartheid. Whether parents allow themselves to think about it consciously or not, children in Gaelscoileanna are segregated behind a veil of sanctimony. Yes, yes, they love the Irish language. Yes, the State is supposed to support the native tongue. I'm sure their cultural emphasis is enriching and fabulous for the pupils. In theory it's all terribly virtuous and wonderful.

In practice, it's a class issue. Whether the motivating force is middle-class liberalism or heartfelt nationalist ideology, you won't find too many immigrants and local ruffians at the Gaelscoil. Parents are entitled to make every effort to improve their children's chances in this world and Gaelscoileanna with their smaller class sizes and self-selecting participants are a good mechanism for that. But do me two favours: stop pretending that this all about the Irish language and don't expect the rest of us to pay for it.

Our national schools are already divided on religious grounds. Bitter denominational disputes in the 19th century have left us a legacy of schools with religious patrons that nevertheless accept pupils of any religion. It's far from ideal that religion is the basis of division among children. Creating additional grounds to split them is deeply unfortunate.

It should be acknowledged that it suits the State very well for the established churches to run the schools and that the churches have done a great job. While the State has twiddled its thumbs the bishops have been scrambling around trying to find spaces for all students of any creed. As a system, most parents would accept that, chronic underfunding aside, their children do very well. The great triumph of ordinary national primary schools is that they are genuinely class neutral.

My five-year-old started in his local school this year and I am thrilled with his education. Gaeilge is used constantly throughout the day and he teaches me the Irish words I have long forgotten. Most importantly, for this short period of his life he will be part of a genuine social mix. I enjoy the fact that he's learning Irish, but I also want him to grow up mixing and making friends with peers outside his cushy middle-class life of easy opportunity.

We are very good at creating bubbles in which we can safely live our lives. Particularly in urban areas people withdraw into their little circle. The rich live in their enclaves where they can read about poverty in the newspaper. The poor live in ghettos where the weak drown in low expectations. Rural life muddies the lines between classes a good deal but, in general, primary schools give children a rare chance to experience what their parents' peer group does not.

Sending them to a Gaelscoil takes away that one chance. They might learn great Irish which can be an enormous advantage in passing exams - the Irish ones - but at the cost of social segregation. People can make their own choice if they want, but they should acknowledge that there is a cost.

That cost is not merely social but financial. Gaelscoileanna are set up voluntarily by local groups. The State pays the wages of the teachers and other running costs. All schools rely on parents to supplement the State funds, but that burden is greater on the Irish schools. The result is that there is a long list of Gaelscoileanna operating in appalling conditions. Their grievance is that other primary schools whose needs are not so dire get funding before them.

Children should not have to attend school in buildings that pose a risk to their health but just as parents have priorities so does the State. Fairness dictates that ordinary national schools deserve new buildings before those who have rejected the mainstream system on linguistic grounds.

This is a simple issue of democracy. The national school system enjoys the overwhelming support of the people. Minorities must be catered for but there are minorities and there are niche markets. The desire to be immersed in the Irish language is a consumer choice. Parents should know that exercising that choice will mean that what their children gain in Irish culture, they lose on the infrastructural pecking order.

As a parent I try to teach my children that they can't have it all and in a world of finite resources someone always pays a price for our choices. I wish the Gaelscoileanna would learn that lesson before they expect taxpayers to pay for theirs.