Naíonra sector outside of the Gaeltacht at crisis point, according to Gaeloideachas

Oct 19, 2023

Report published by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth on 18 October 2023 indicates only 53 naíonraí operating through Irish outside of Gaeltacht areas

The results of the mapping exercise recently undertaken by the Department of Children, Survey on Irish-Medium Provision of Early Learning and Care and School-Age Childcare Report 2023, give a bleak assessment of the current status of naíonraí outside of the Gaeltacht, according to Gaeloideachas, the national support and advocacy organisation for Irish-medium and Gaeltacht schools and naíonraí outside of the Gaeltacht. The Department’s report on the results of the survey – which was distributed to Early Learning and Care and School-Age Childcare settings that operate either wholly or partly through Irish – was published yesterday, 18 October 2023. In the survey on which the report is based, only 53 naíonraí outside of the Gaeltacht indicated that they are operating entirely through Irish. While it was not compulsory for naíonraí to take part in the survey, Gaeloideachas is of the view that the results are a reasonably accurate assessment.

This report will inform the development of a ‘Comprehensive Action Plan to further the development of Irish Language Provision in Early Learning and Care settings and Childcare for School-Aged Children,’ to be published by the Department of Children in 2024. It is not yet known, however, what the scope of this plan will be or what resources will be provided to implement an action plan. Gaeloideachas is very concerned that the plan will not be ambitious enough to protect the vulnerable minority sector, and that there will be further delays to the provision of strategic intervention for naíonraí outside of the Gaeltacht in the meantime.  

This is the first time, as far as Gaeloideachas is aware, that the Department of Children has collected information regarding the language through which early-years services operate, despite the fact that naíonraí have existed since the 1970s. Even now, the State has no criteria by which to recognise naíonraí as a specific type of service, one in which immersion education is practised and where communities have different support needs as a result. There is no public directory available from the State for parents to find out where their nearest naíonra is, and the details of naíonraí that took part in the mapping exercise will not be shared publicly.

“This is the heart of the problem: If immersion education settings are not specifically recognised as unique settings operating in a distinct context, targeted support will not be made available to safeguard, strengthen, and develop them,” said Bláthnaid ní Ghréacháin, Chief Executive of Gaeloideachas. “The gap in provision is extremely clear when we have just 53 naíonraí for the 153 Irish-medium primary schools outside of Gaeltacht areas. There is not a naíonra place available for every child who wants one, and the State has no active plan to increase the number of naíonraí, or even to invest to prevent further closures.”

Gaeloideachas is aware that at least 17 naíonra services have closed since 2016, but State organisations do not detail in their record of services that have closed whether they were a naíonra service or not. As a result, Gaeloideachas depends on information provided by the naíonraí themselves and on direct contact with them. Efforts were made over the years to create an accurate record of the number of naíonraí outside the Gaeltacht through Forbairt Naíonraí Teoranta (FNT, which closed in 2014) and Gaeloideachas, but naíonraí are under no obligation to engage with voluntary organisations and in a sector that is already overloaded with administrative responsibilities, compulsory reporting to the voluntary sector could not be foisted as an additional burden on naíonraí.  

FNT closed as a result of funding cuts in the Irish-language voluntary sector and the subsequent decision of the Department of Children to stop funding their support services for naíonraí. This was a severe blow to the sector, following another severe blow in 2013 when the subsidy scheme for naíonraí, which was administered by FNT and funded by Foras na Gaeilge, was ended. Naíonraí outside of the Gaeltacht lost over €1.3 million in targeted investment as a result of these two decisions, and while Gaeloideachas now provides support services to them, they are very limited due to available resources and funding.

“The decision to close is heartbreaking for every service in that position, with the majority closing as they cannot recruit staff due to pay and conditions in the sector. Hundreds of children are then denied the opportunity to become fluent in Irish at the start of their educational journeys,” says Gaeloideachas President, Micheál S. Mac Donnacha. “The sector cannot sustain further decline, levels of trust are continuously reducing and there is a serious need for action sooner rather than later. Gaeloideachas is calling for a subsidy scheme to be made available to naíonraí as a matter of urgency, for investment to be made in support services and early-years specialists who work specifically with immersion education settings, and for due recognition to be given to those working in naionraí, and the children in their care.”

“Despite the bleak picture this report gives us of the status of naíonraí outside of the Gaeltacht, its publication shows that the Department of Children is finally taking some steps to acknowledge this issue,” said Clare Spáinneach, Services Manager for Gaeloideachas. “That being said, far more support and investment is needed, and needed urgently, to ensure the future of the sector so that naíonraí can continue to operate as the cornerstone of our immersion education system, and provide those crucial early supports for every family that chooses Irish-medium education for their children.”