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Monday 6 February 2023 Dublin: 0°C
Rolling News
# gaelscoileanna
'The State invests in something that's then lost at secondary school': The challenges for Gaelscoileanna
“I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve had to tell parents,‘You have a right to education for your child, but not a right to Irish-medium education.”

This article is about challenges facing Irish-language schools. You can read it in Irish here.

FIVE DECADES AGO, Ireland had only a smattering of Irish-speaking schools outside the Gaeltacht – ten at primary level, and just five at secondary. Now there are 150 Gaelscoileanna and 44 Gaelcholáistí across the 26 counties, with demand far exceeding the number of available places.

Bláthnaid ní Ghréacháin of Gaeloideachas, a representative national body for education through the Irish language, points to a steady growth in interest from parents over recent years. “One of our biggest challenges has been the lack of new schools to meet that demand, and then dealing with parents’ disappointment about not getting their school of choice,” she says.

Cormac McCashin of An Foras Pátrúnachta, a patron of Irish-medium schools, finds that a lot of parents now appreciate the value of a bilingual education. “People became more open to the idea as new schools opened and they saw a neighbour or sibling with a child in a Gaelscoil, and saw the excellent education they were getting. Some parents think it isn’t for them because of the language, but only a small percentage of students in Gaelscoileanna speak Irish at home.”

The establishment of new primary schools previously involved open competition for patronage – a process said to have disadvantaged parents wanting education through Irish. An intervention by the Irish language commissioner led to a new approach being introduced in 2019, resulting in Irish-medium schools being prioritised in areas without a Gaelscoil. But the projected sharp fall in the number of primary school pupils over the next decade will mean few opportunities to open new schools in the coming years.

There are also still significant barriers to post-primary education in Irish, with many graduates of Gaelscoileanna having no Gaelcholáiste to attend locally. McCashin points out that there are six Irish language primary schools in the Tullamore area, but not a single Irish language secondary school. “The state is investing in something only for that investment to be lost at second level,” he says. “Students are losing the Irish they’ve become so proficient in at primary school because they don’t have the option of a secondary education in Irish.”

Advocates argue that the selection system for new secondary schools is still skewed against Irish-language education. “The patronage competitions are a first-past-the-post system whereby we, as a minority choice, are put in direct competition in terms of numbers with the English-medium option,” says McCashin. “How are we going to win any of those competitions?”

Ní Ghréacháin acknowledges that establishing secondary schools “is much more complex than primary”. Securing teachers with subject expertise and Irish language proficiency is “a real challenge”, she says.

The Department of Education points out that there are multiple factors at play in the patronage process. “Parental preferences from parents of children in the school planning areas concerned, together with other considerations such as the extent of diversity of provision currently available in these areas (including Irish-medium provision), are key to decisions in relation to the outcome of the process,” a spokesperson said.


One approach followed by the Department has been to set up Irish language units within English language post-primary schools. The unit, or aonad, operates under the same management board and roll number as the school in which they’re hosted. A spokesperson for the Department said an aonad “may be appropriate in certain circumstances”.

However, Ní Ghréacháin says that approach is far from ideal. “The aonad system has now become the default model of provision, but they don’t provide the full immersion experience for students. Some have a stronger identity and ethos than others through having their own building away from the English-speaking part, for example, with no contact or interference when it comes to the language of communication or instruction. Unfortunately, that’s not usually the case.

“Schools that follow an immersion programme should be standalone schools with their own patron and board of management. We have no roadmap from the Department on how these units are to become a fully-fledged independent school, which should be the ultimate aim.”

Advocates compare the system here to places such as Wales, which has set ambitious future targets for education through the Welsh language. McCashin says there were more Gaelscoileanna than Welsh-speaking schools in the early 1980s, but that Wales now has much stronger provision. “The support for schools there is grounded in legislation and not just lip service,” he says. “I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve had to tell parents, ‘You have a right to education for your child, but not a right to Irish-medium education.’”

Several schools in Wales have also moved away from English as their language of instruction – something advocates would like to see replicated in Ireland. Synge Street in Dublin 8 switched from English to Irish in 2017, and Gealoideachas is hoping to encourage others to make that change in the coming years. “It’s an easier route to take than establishing a new school, especially in areas that don’t need any more schools,” says ní Ghréacháin. “We’ve been looking to Wales to see how that’s been managed, and what we can learn from them.”

McCashin says governments in other European countries tend to have a better understanding of the benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism. “The places where immersion education and minority language teaching are blossoming are places where the state puts their money where their mouth is, so to speak. We’re constantly fighting with the Department of Education in relation to the provision of Irish-medium education.”

A department spokesperson said that a working group has been established to progress a new policy for Irish-speaking schools outside the Gaeltacht. The spokesperson said the policy would be informed by a public consultation as well as a review of national and international literature on minority language education.

But the question of how to get children speaking Irish beyond the classroom still hangs in the air. “Schools can only do so much,” says ní Ghréacháin. “Children need to have opportunities to do what they like to do through the medium of Irish, whether it be with clubs or other social outlets. We know that the use of Irish among students in Gaelscoileanna often stops the minute they pass the gate of the school. How do we get people to want to socialise in Irish? We want that to be a natural choice for people rather than something that’s enforced by a school or system.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

Catherine Healy
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