Policy - Shared education, but no shared opinion on language

In Northern Ireland, tensions rise over Irish-speaking schools

The movement to create a more unified education system in Northern Ireland has been a political battlefield for many years. But while increasing collaboration between Protestant and Catholic schools has been hailed as a success, a new point of contention has arisen: the role of Irish-language education.

A major report commissioned by the Northern Ireland government earlier this year said that "shared education" - a programme encouraging the historically separate Protestant and Catholic school sectors to work together - should become the country's "core mechanism" for improving educational standards.

But the impending launch of a single national body, the Education and Skills Authority, to replace the country's five education boards is raising tension levels.

Unionists fear that Irish-speaking schools will be protected and therefore given an "unfair advantage" under the new authority. They argue that this is a barrier to shared education. But proponents of Irish-medium education claim that it is at the forefront of shared schooling and will help to heal rifts between different communities, rather than exacerbate them.

There are now 29 stand-alone Irish-medium schools (28 primaries and one post-primary) and 10 Irish-medium units attached to Catholic maintained schools (seven of which are primaries and three post-primaries). The number of students enrolled in the sector has risen steadily over the past decade, from 2,695 in 2002-03 to 4,159 in 2012-13, but this still amounts to only 1.3 per cent of the school population.

The Department of Education Northern Ireland has a statutory duty to encourage the development of Irish-medium education, but said it does this by responding to parental demand and does not favour one sector over the other.

Nevertheless, members of the Irish-language sector feel it has been "absent" from the debate over shared education.

Writing in the Belfast Telegraph recently, Micheal O Duibh, chief executive of Comhairle na Gaelscolaiochta, the representative body for Irish-medium education, said that, rather than being a barrier, it is an innovative way of advancing shared education, making schools sustainable and providing students with the advantages of bilingualism.

But Ulster Unionist Party politician Danny Kinahan hit back, questioning whether the sector is sustainable or capable of delivering a high-quality education. "Out of 4,600 pupils, there are no more than 40 Protestants," he said, "hardly a statistic that turns the Irish-medium sector into the flag-carrier of shared education."

Other Unionists have also spoken out on the issue. Last month, Sinn Fein education minister John O'Dowd was accused of prioritising Irish-medium education when figures emerged showing that his department had spent twice the amount of money on a review of Irish-medium education as it had on a strategy to improve literacy and numeracy. Mr O'Dowd dismissed the claims as "disingenuous" and "flawed", saying that the consultation was statutory and that his department had spent millions of pounds on literacy and numeracy projects.

With growing unease on both sides, it is being left to proponents of shared education to steer a course to compromise.

Mark Baker, programme manager of the Centre for Shared Education at Queen's University Belfast, told TES that there are complexities in the Irish-language sector but that there is also a desire to overcome them.

"Shared education has to be about all schools working together," he said. "Irish-medium schools are playing a role in shared education and are looking to be involved even more. They recognise the value of collaboration and are trying to find the best way of doing it.

"But at the same time they are in the middle of a big discussion around the formation of the (Education and Skills Authority) and there is a risk that they could become squeezed in that debate."

Mr Baker said that the language issue need not be a barrier to collaboration. "What we have in Irish-medium schools is a huge amount of knowledge in language learning," he said. "If we can encourage the transfer of that knowledge to English-medium schools it will be to everyone's benefit."

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