I am delighted to welcome you to this important occasion when I will be launching proposals for Gaeltacht education. I would like to especially welcome my colleague, Joe McHugh, and Seosamh Ó hÁghmaill of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
I believe Irish to be very important in the Ireland of today. This beautiful language is part of our culture. Many people of different backgrounds live in Ireland today. The Irish language is a common identity link among us all. There are also many benefits to being bilingual. We also know that Irish is required for jobs in education, the media, the law and in Europe. It is very important, therefore, that Irish should be strong in our schools.
Under the Twenty Year Strategy for Irish, my Department has a significant involvement in strengthening Irish in the education system. New curriculums are being prepared at primary level and for the Junior Certificate. Language skills in Irish for young teachers are being strengthened in the new training courses (i.e. initial teacher education). Young teachers have an opportunity to spend a longer period of time in the Gaeltacht.
I believe that the Gaeltacht is of critical importance to the language and the culture. The Gaeltacht is a well for those learning the language. We all retain happy memories of periods spent as students in the Gaeltacht. We must ensure that Irish will endure as a living language in the Gaeltacht areas.
The Gaeltacht schools have a key role in supporting Irish in the Gaeltacht. But I am also aware of the significant challenges that Gaeltacht schools face. Students come from different linguistic backgrounds. The use of English continues to increase in the Gaeltacht. As a result, the number of children raised as Irish speakers has greatly decreased. There is pressure on schools also to change to teaching through English.
I am very pleased to be launching policy proposals today that will address these challenges. I believe that these proposals could help schools to provide an excellent education through the medium of Irish. I also believe that the proposals could help the promotion of Irish Gaeltacht communities.
I believe that the proposals for Gaeltacht education that we are launching today are ambitious and far reaching and have the potential to make a real difference to Gaeltacht schools and Gaeltacht communities. They represent the most potentially significant development in education in the Gaeltacht since the 1970s when the Gaeltacht benefitted, like the rest of the country, from free secondary education. They provide a valuable opportunity for active engagement between schools and their local communities and to stimulate local solutions to the challenges that they face.
The proposals are the result of extensive research by my Department over the past year or so. That research has examined in detail the experiences of Gaeltacht schools and schools in other minority language contexts. And I would like to acknowledge the input of Muireann Ní Mhóráin, COGG, Dr Pádraig Ó Duibhir and researchers from St Patrick’s College of Education, the Inspectorate and my Department’s Forward Planning and Curriculum Units for their work on this research.
Today, we are launching a set of proposals to strengthen Gaeltacht schools. These proposals are informed by our research. But they are only proposals not fixed solutions. The Government wants to hear the views of Gaeltacht communities – the people you represent – about the proposals. That is why Minister McHugh and I are launching not only a set of proposals but an intensive consultation with you and Gaeltacht communities about the ideas in this document.
We will hear more of the detail about the proposals in a few minutes. The proposals suggest ways in which we might enable Gaeltacht schools to clearly establish their Irish language identity and to strengthen their capacity to provide a high-quality education through Irish.
As you are aware, many local Gaeltacht communities are currently engaging in language planning processes in accordance with the Gaeltacht Act under the aegis of Údarás na Gaeltachta and Minister McHugh’s Department. I believe that the work of schools in delivering the policy proposals has the potential to complement the language planning processes engaged in by local Gaeltacht communities.
And the proposals make clear that Gaeltacht schools will require specific additional support if they are to deliver these ambitious proposals. The document proposes that the Department of Education and Skills should provide a package of additional resources to those Gaeltacht schools that teach the curriculum through Irish. It also suggests that we should support schools in the Gaeltacht that currently operate through English to move, on a phased basis, to Irish-medium education.
It is suggested that these resources should support all learners in Gaeltacht schools, but particularly those who are native speakers. I am sure that such additional supports would be welcomed by Gaeltacht communities and those parents who are raising their children through Irish.
The policy proposals suggest that additional resources could be used to enhance the professional development of teachers and principals in Gaeltacht schools. Much of the research shows that there is a need to ensure that there is a supply of teachers with the knowledge and language skills necessary to teach in Gaeltacht schools. There is also a need to support principals in meeting the particular demands of leading and managing in a Gaeltacht school context.
The proposals also include suggestions about how we can ensure that the Irish language curriculum is relevant to learners in Gaeltacht schools, particularly native speakers. As a former pre-school teacher, I know how important it is to have progression and continuity in the experiences of children as they move from pre-school into primary school. This is particularly important from a language perspective in the Gaeltacht context so that children have an enriched immersion experience in the Irish language. The proposals also outline actions on how such links can be established and highlight the importance of enhancing the skills of practitioners in naíonraí.
I believe that the draft proposals for Gaeltacht education are attempting to address the real issues and challenges facing Gaeltacht schools and communities. I have no doubt but that some of the proposals will be the source of much debate and discussion. For example, the proposals raise the question of whether English-medium provision should be provided alongside Irish-medium provision, if there is sufficient demand. The proposals also raise the question of restructuring school provision in Gaeltacht areas. And we have to look carefully at the possible cost and the potential benefit of each of the proposals when weighing up which of the proposals we might choose to implement.
Debate about such issues is healthy. It also provides a valuable opportunity for Gaeltacht communities to engage in a process of reflection and review on the role of the Irish language in their communities and schools. It is very important that all parties in Gaeltacht areas- schools, students, parents, community organisations and individuals in Gaeltacht communities engage in this discussion.
I wish to acknowledge the input of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and bodies such as COGG in heIping with the development of these proposals. I want to hear from Gaeltacht organisations and the many people across the island that I know are passionate and engaged in the future of the Gaeltacht as an Irish speaking entity. My Department will engage in extensive consultation on the proposals at national and local level.
I would like to get the policy for Gaeltacht schools right. Therefore, I would like to hear the views of Gaeltacht communities, organisations and of individuals in the Gaeltacht. There will be lots of opportunities for people to share their views, for example through the survey or by writing to my Department. Following from the consultation, there will be a forum in the autumn.
All of these views will contribute to improving the Department’s policy. I am very grateful to you all for attending here today. The large attendance here indicates the high level of interest in this matter. Arising from the consultation, I expect that we will have an education policy for the Gaeltacht that will benefit the language, the learners, and the communities of the Gaeltacht.
Of course, Unity is strength
Thank you all.