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Continuing concern around new rules for exemptions from studying Irish

Aug 12, 2019

It was announced today that a new circular on exemptions from studying Irish will come into effect in schools next month, meaning that:

  • An application for exemption will not be required for pupils in special schools or special classes.
    A psychological assessment will no longer be required to seek exemption.
    Pupils under the age of 12 (formerly 11) who received primary education outside the State or who have left the State for a period of 3 years or more but who have returned to education later in Ireland will be exempt.
    The decision to grant an exemption will be made by the school principal, following discussions with parents, teachers, special education teachers and the pupil.
    The circular will apply to English-medium schools only.

Gaeloideachas, the national representative body for Irish-medium and Gaeltacht schools, recognises the urgent need to review and update the circular so that it takes into account the socio-cultural changes, curricular developments that have taken place in Ireland since the existing circular was drafted over 25 years ago, as well as our much greater understanding of special educational needs.

However, it is disappointing that the recommendations made by Gaeloideachas during the consultation process have not been taken into account by the Department of Education & Skills. In a detailed submission, Gaeloideachas recommended that a similar approach be adopted to the one implemented when it was identified that there was difficulty in the teaching and learning of mathematics. Instead of granting an exemption, a creative solution was put in place in the form of a new ‘Project Maths’, and additional training was provided for teachers. To support the change, students who pass the Leaving Certificate Higher Level examination are awarded additional points. The Irish language and pupils undertaking to study it deserve to be incentivised in the same positive manner.

The Department states that the exemption will be “rare and exceptional”, but it is not clear from the information shared today that there will be conditions in place to ensure this. There is a risk, where a decision regarding exemption is to be made on the basis of an examination – one that assesses only a certain aspect of the pupil’s learning ability – that it could be used strategically to achieve a desired outcome. There is also a significant risk in the longer term that this circular will in effect be a ‘back door’ to making Irish an optional subject in the future.

While the new circular will come into effect in English-medium schools only, Gaeloideachas has not yet received any clarification on the implications it will have for Irish-medium and Gaeltacht schools. Parents of children in Irish-medium primary schools, where their children study all subjects through the medium of Irish, often seek a letter of support from principals for their applications for exemption from the study of Irish at post-primary level. This entirely undermines the concept of an exemption, and principals of Irish-medium and Gaeltacht primary schools must have clear guidance on how to deal with such applications.

Though we now have 60 years of research findings which reveal the cognitive, personal, socio-environmental and societal benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism, parents, pupils, policy makers and even educators remain unaware, for the most part, of the advantages and benefits of acquiring Irish.

Granting an automatic exemption in the case of pupils in special schools or special classes is very problematic. It sends a message that Irish-medium education is not suitable for students with special educational needs. This is simply not true, and to deny these pupils the opportunity to acquire the language is to discriminate against them. Rather than proposing that pupils with special educational needs should be exempt from Irish, we should instead ensure that they are provided with appropriate supports, a differentiated learning environment and appropriately-trained teachers. Rather than deny them, they should be given the same opportunities to have a positive experience of Irish as any other pupil.

Similarly, instead of granting an exemption to those who received their education outside the State, they should be offered an intensive course in Irish. They should have a right to the same access to Irish as their peers, and should not be denied the advantages of acquiring another language.

Gaeloideachas recommends that a public awareness campaign be initiated to highlight the advantages of acquiring Irish, so that parents would have a better understanding of how it can benefit their child, and therefore be less likely to seek an exemption.

Gaeloideachas recommends that instead of a negative focus on exemptions for studying Irish, the focus should instead be a positive and constructive one, with more support for pupils, more training for teachers, more emphasis on differentiation in teaching and more suitable resources available, to provide the benefit of the Irish language on an equal basis to all.