Irish-language exemption plans go against best practice
New criteria could have serious implications for the future of education in Ireland
In 2016, 9.2% of pupils were granted exemptions from the study of Irish. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Following an extensive consultation, the Minister for Education and Skills, Joe McHugh, last week announced new criteria for granting exemptions from the study of Irish. The fact that a record number of people, more than 11,000, responded to the consultation demonstrates that this is no routine education matter. While I welcome the clarity that the Minister’s announcement brings, and the fact that parents of children with learning difficulties will not be forced to pay large sums to access psychological assessments for their children, I believe the consultation process was flawed and that the outcome has serious implications for the future of inclusive education in Ireland.
To guide the public consultation held last year, the Department of Education and Skills reviewed the processes for granting exemptions and published a very informative background paper which included many references to the widely-accepted benefits of language learning. In my view, however, the department did not review sufficiently why or for what purpose exemptions from language learning were being granted in our schools. Such a review was essential to determine whether subject exemptions are an appropriate mechanism to cater for diverse learning needs.
The department also published draft circulars outlining the new processes to be put in place for the next school year. There are merits to this approach in that it is very open and transparent. However, the proposals in these draft documents pre-empted the views of stakeholders and led to the design of an online questionnaire that was skewed towards the recommendations outlined in the circulars. There was very little scope within the questionnaire to put forward alternatives to a system of exemptions and no rationale for employing subject exemptions in the first place.
Exemptions from the study of languages do not exist in other jurisdictions. Instead, the curriculum and teaching approach is adapted to meet students’ diverse learning needs. This approach is in line with developments in Irish education where an inclusive, universal-design approach to learning is adopted. The learner is at the centre of the process and it is the teacher’s role to adapt the teaching approach rather than to deprive the student of a learning opportunity, which is essentially what an exemption does.
Moreover there is no empirical evidence internationally for the concept of a second-language learning disability. As with most curricular areas, there is a continuum of strong to weak language learners but no unique disability in language learning.
The proposed criteria for the granting of exemptions is also flawed
When we look beyond Ireland to countries with higher levels of bilingualism, we see people with moderate and profound levels of disability who can communicate in two or more languages, provided they have enough exposure to those languages. There is evidence from the department’s review to support this view, as 67 per cent of Junior Certificate students in 2016 with an exemption from the study of Irish sat an examination in a foreign language. If the basis for an exemption from the study of Irish was a language learning disability, surely it should apply to the study of all languages.
Further evidence that contradicts the existence of a second-language disability is that, currently, 9.4 per cent of students in all-Irish primary schools have special education needs, with dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism spectrum disorder being the most common. The vast majority of these students come from English-speaking homes and are successfully learning all curriculum subjects through Irish.
Notwithstanding this evidence, I agree that exemptions from the study of Irish should be granted in “rare” and “exceptional” circumstances as proposed by the department, but I am deeply concerned that the new criteria will result in exemptions being granted “often” and “routinely”.
Rare and exceptional
In 1999, 2.5 per cent of pupils were granted exemptions which, I would argue, was in line with what one might understand as rare and exceptional. From 1999 onwards, the percentage of pupils with exemptions grew considerably to almost 11 per cent in 2010 with a small decrease to 9.2 per cent in 2016. In our submission, we called on the department to clearly define “rare” and “exceptional”, as we don’t believe that a 10 per cent occurrence in a school population could be considered rare and exceptional.
Finally, the proposed criteria for the granting of exemptions is also flawed. The standardised literacy attainment test suggested would routinely place 10 per cent of the school population within the “eligible” category. I anticipate enormous pressure on school principals to grant exemptions. As the Teachers Union of Ireland noted in its consultation submission, parents were already exerting considerable pressure on schools to grant exemptions, even where the school did not believe that an exemption was applicable.
I call on the Minister to publish the consultation report immediately, in advance of circulars issuing to schools, so that the public can see what evidence, if any, informed the department’s proposals which contradict international best practice
Pádraig Ó Duibhir is professor of education at the DCU Institute of Education and director of Sealbhú, DCU’s research centre for the learning and teaching of Irish