Gaeloideachas submission to the Committee on the Irish Language, Gaeltacht and the Irish-speaking Community on the crisis in naíonraí outside Gaeltacht areas

May 27, 2024

Gaeloideachas made the following submission to the Committee on the Irish Language, Gaeltacht and the Irish-speaking Community on May 24th 2024, at the Committee’s request. 

Introduction

A Theachtaí agus a Sheanadóirí, a chairde,

Thank you for the opportunity to write to you regarding the crisis affecting naíonraí outside Gaeltacht areas and Gaeloideachas’ recommendations as to how best to support them.

Gaeloideachas defines a naíonra as an early immersion setting for children under the care of an early years teacher. The children in the naíonra learn through play, through the medium of Irish.

In the  Irish-medium education sector, naíonraí are recognised as the cornerstone of the immersion education system and, outside the Gaeltacht, the naíonra is often the first contact children have with the Irish language. The naíonra aims to:

  • foster the child’s overall development in the early years
  • help children who are being raised with Irish to get an early education in their own language and to enrich that language
  • help children without Irish to acquire an additional language naturally

Gaeloideachas’ vision is that every child can get a place in a local naíonra, and that they will be provided with high-quality early immersion education. Unfortunately, without formal recognition and support from the State, the future of the naíonraí is at risk.

Gaeloideachas’ role

Gaeloideachas is a national voluntary organisation that supports the development of Irish-medium education. It was established as Gaelscoileanna in 1973 to support Irish-medium primary and post-primary schools outside the Gaeltacht. Since then, the role of the organisation has been expanded and it now provides support services for Gaeltacht schools and for naionraí outside the Gaeltacht as well. Gaeloideachas is funded by Foras na Gaeilge as the lead organisation in the Irish-medium immersion education sector. Among the functions of the organisation are

Support and advocate on behalf of the naíonra community outside the Gaeltacht. Recommend appropriate structures and supports to the State and relevant parties in order to support full Irish-medium provision that meets the needs of the communities and facilitates the delivery of excellent early-years services through the medium of Irish.

Gaeloideachas is a member organisation, and membership is open to naíonraí that operate through the medium of Irish located outside the Gaeltacht in the 26 counties. 12 naíonraí are currently registered as members of the organisation. Gaeloideachas has no role in the management, quality assurance or inspection of naíonraí. The funding and current staff allocation of the organisation is not sufficient to provide a comprehensive support service for naíonraí outside the Gaeltacht.

Recognising naíonraí​

Naíonraí outside the Gaeltacht do not fall under a single management organization, as is the case with the majority in the Gaeltacht operating under Comhar Naíonraí na Gaeltachta. Outside the Gaeltacht, they are a mix of private and community enterprises with independent management committees. They come under the same regulations as the English-medium early years services and have the same schemes and supports available to them. They do not receive any additional support from the State agencies, despite their additional needs as early immersion settings.

It is a fundamental problem that the State does not have a mechanism to recognise and affirm the unique status of the naíonra as a setting that provides early immersion. As a consequence of this, the naíonraí operating through Irish outside the Gaeltacht do not have special rights or protection. They are not classified as a specific type of service by the State agencies and as a result there is not even information available to the public about where naíonraí are located. There is a need for proper recognition from the State for early immersion education as a model, and a public directory of naíonraí that provide early immersion education.

Falling numbers of naíonraí outside the Gaeltacht

There are no accurate figures available for the number of naíonraí operating outside the Gaeltacht.

When Gaeloideachas took on the role of providing support services for naíonraí in 2014, a historical database of naíonraí outside the Gaeltacht included more than 180 services. Gaeloideachas requested annual statistics from the 180 naíonraí on that list from 2016-2021 in order to identify a baseline, but without any obligation on the part of naíonraí to report information to the organisation, it was not possible to confirm the numbers. Gaeloideachas stopped collecting statistics in 2021, when only 82 services responded to the survey, and the organisation focused instead on lobbying the Department of Children to profile the Irish-medium early years sector.

In 2022/2023 the State undertook research on this for the first time. However, the survey was not mandatory, and respondents’ consent was not sought to publicly share information about the language of individual services. The Department of Children published the research in the Survey on Irish Medium Provision of Early Learning and Care and School-Age Childcare in 2023, and according to that report:

  • Only 53 early years services outside Gaeltacht areas said they operate entirely through Irish (that is, in keeping with Gaeloideachas’ definition of a naíonra). Comparatively, there are 153 Irish-medium primary schools outside Gaeltacht areas.
  • 63 early years services outside Gaeltacht areas said that they are operating bilingually (but what ‘bilingually’ means was not defined).

This shows that there has probably been a significant reduction in the number of naíonraí outside Gaeltacht areas in the last ten years. This is in keeping with the anecdotal evidence Gaeloideachas has received from the community. The organisation has a record of 17 naíonra closures since 2016 and it is estimated that there are more. The State is not able to give an exact figure of the number of naíonraí that have closed because information regarding the language of the service is not sought when an notice is given regarding the closure of a service. Another complication is that a naíonra service may operate within a larger English-medium service, in which case the early immersion provision might be discontinued but is not recorded as a closed service because provision continues through English instead.

It is a mark of progress that the Department of Children is now recognising that it is important to collect information regarding the Irish language in the early years sector, and that a question regarding the language of the service will be included in future in the annual Pobal survey. Another step in the right direction is the national plan due to be published by the Department of Children in 2024, and it is imperative that it be both ambitious and sufficiently focused to tackle the crisis that is being endured by naíonraí outside Gaeltacht areas. The national plan was due to be published in 2023, it has now been postponed to 2024 but the public consultation has not yet commenced (May 2024).

We need a scheme to formally recognise naíonraí providing early immersion education, alongside a quality assurance scheme that provides appropriate supports for the naíonraí and the children in their care.

Funding

Naíonraí outside the Gaeltacht are dependent on funding from the State to pay running costs and staff. The cost of providing a service through the medium of Irish is higher, but naíonraí outside the Gaeltacht do not receive any additional funding to help them cover these costs. Their additional costs can include:

  • the purchase or development of resources in Irish;
  • Irish language classes for staff, as Irish is not included in their initial training;
  • translation costs for policies, forms, notices and more; and
  • an allowance to recruit and retain staff.

Between 2013–2014, €1.4 million was lost in State funding for naíonraí: €876,900 from the subsidy scheme funded by Foras na Gaeilge and a further €500,000 when Pobal funding for the dedicated naíonra support organisation Forbairt Naíonraí Teoranta (FNT) ended. Forbairt Naíonraí Teoranta ceased operation as a consequence. Despite the fact that Gaeloideachas was given a role to support the sector, the funding arrangements did not continue and the services provided by Gaeloideachas are not as comprehensive as those previously provided by FNT, due to a lack of funding and resources.

A subsidy scheme for naíonraí is needed to ensure that they will be viable and that they will be able to provide high quality early immersion education to the children in their care.

Staff recruitment and retention crisis

Naíonraí that have closed in recent years have reported to Gaeloideachas that it is primarily because it was not possible to recruit or retain Irish-speaking staff that their services were forced to close, or that they were prevented from opening in the first place. There is a recruitment crisis in the early years sector in general, but it is more acute in the naíonraí, most especially when it comes to recruiting Irish-speaking staff to support special education in the early years.

Typically, the staff in naíonraí outside Gaeltacht areas are part-time and work according to the school year calendar. Pay rates in the sector are low, and staff are not paid during the holidays. The naíonraí outside Gaeltacht areas are in competition with the primary school sector, where better pay and working conditions are available, and staff with fluency in Irish are in high demand.

There is a need for strategic investment in Irish-medium early years with a scheme that will help recruit, build capacity and retain naíonra teachers and provide high-quality early immersion education for young children.

Conclusion and recommendations

The naíonraí outside Gaeltacht areas are operating in a complex and changing environment, without proper recognition of their status as early immersion settings and without sufficient support for them to be viable. For too long we have relied on employees, the majority of them women, who put their own best interests aside for the sake of the children in their care, a situation that is not right or sustainable. They deserve better, as do the families who depend on them to provide care, education and a foundation in the Irish language for their children.

In order to realise the vision that an exemplary early immersion system be available to everyone, it is necessary to tackle the current major challenges for naíonraí outside Gaeltacht areas and ensure that:

  1. the State recognises early immersion education as the naíonra model and develops supportive policies
  2. a public directory be made available of naíonraí that provide early immersion education
  3. a recognition scheme be developed for early immersion education, alongside a quality assurance scheme that provides appropriate supports for naíonraí and the children in their care
  4. a subsidy scheme be made available to naíonraí to ensure that they are viable and that they have the capacity to provide high quality early immersion education
  5. strategic investment be made as a matter of urgency in a scheme that will help recruit, build capacity and retain naíonra teachers