It has been reported in the last twenty-four hours that the Twenty-Six County Minister for Education, Joe McHugh, intends to keep Irish as a compulsory subject at Leaving Certificate level. While this news is welcome, there is no room for complacency in relation to the place of our native language with the education system.
Many Irish language activists believe that senior civil servants within the Department of Education and Skills have opinions of the Irish language that range from ambiguous to outright hostility. The same Department is now overseeing two crucial, and interlinked, evaluations that may have serious implications for the teaching of Irish at secondary level across the state.
The first of these evaluations concerns the process by which exemptions from the Irish language are attained at Leaving Cert level. Irish is currently compulsory for all students bar those who have achieved an ‘exemption’ from taking the subject.
The Department is evaluating the process by which exemptions are granted amid strong suspicions that many students are ‘gaming the system’. For example it has been established that 58% of students who are granted exemptions for reasons of ‘learning difficulties’ still study another European language.
Language advocacy groups have already highlighted the inadequacies of the online survey that has been produced by the Department of Education and Skills. The range of questions that are asked is extremely narrow and survey responses are limited to only 120 words. The Department Inspectorate’s own research underlining the benefits of learning a second language is also omitted.
Despite Joe McHugh’s assurances there are real concerns that senior mandarins within the Department will again push for Irish to be made an optional subject at some point in the future.
The second evaluation, by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, has to do with more fundamental changes to the entire Leaving Certificate. Again, it appears that Department official are working quietly in the background to make the outcome of this process a foregone conclusion.
Media reports have spoken of on-going ‘discussions’ within the Department that are geared towards 1) reducing the number of subjects taken at Leaving Cert level, 2) introducing a fully optional based course, and 3) expanding the number of subjects available to focus more on ‘practical’ subjects. All these outcomes, taken separately or as a whole, threaten the status of the Irish language within the education system.
Many teachers, parents and students would agree with a reformed Leaving Cert that can adapt to individual students’ strengths. In developing such a system there is a very real danger, however, of the Irish language being demoted to an optional ‘niche’ subject.
Educational and linguistic experts have already clearly outlined how making a subject like Irish ‘optional’ closes off the actual choice of studying it for large swathes of students. Without a satisfactory demand for the language in many schools, classes will not be run. In such schools, the minority will be shut off from the language and a one-way process of language erosion will be set in motion.
The current attempts within the Department to marginalise Irish as a meaningful part of students lives in the southern state cannot be separated from the insidious influence of private corporations on the entire education system. With increasing frequency the general public is told that the current education system is not ‘fit for purpose’ – when that purpose is defined as a production line manufacturing an obedient, narrow-skilled workforce for the US-dominated Tech and Pharma sectors. The same siren voices tell us that subjects like Irish and History are luxuries that cannot be afforded in the modern world.
Much easier to manipulate a ‘labour force’ who have skills in coding, engineering, biology, finance, and so forth, but no critical faculties, cultural understanding, or sense of place which would guide them in how best to apply these skills in an ethical manner. Much easier to control a non-union workforce that knows little of the historic fight for union recognition, for secure employment, for fair wages and the right to a home, education and healthcare.
There is no reason that Irish cannot remain a central component in a reformed educational system. The key ingredient in ensuring that it flourishes, both within it and outside of school walls, is political will and investment. The public must make their voices heard on this. Otherwise, we risk handing over the survival of an integral part of our culture to neoliberal Department functionaries only interested in providing worker drones for industry at the lowest possible cost to the state.
The teaching of all subjects, including Irish, should be under constant review to take account of new research, information and methodology. The supports which were available to teachers going to the Gaeltacht to achieve full fluency need to be reinstated. The quality of Irish teaching in English speaking schools hinges on the initial investment made in teachers during their training years and the quality of their training at third level. Wider societal attitudes also influence the quality of teaching across all levels.
Instead of attempting to marginalise Irish, the well established benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism ought to be highlighted. Giving up on the idea that Irish should be central to the learning of all students right through their education is essentially giving up on the idea of a collective and distinct Irish Nation.
Of course, the neoliberal dogma prevalent in civil service and government circles today is completely comfortable with such a surrender. ‘Reforms’ that are ultimately about ridding the education system of pesky subjects like Irish and history must be resisted. Our children deserve an education systems that encourage them to think about their place as human beings and citizens as opposed to as worker-drones and consumers.