Dáil debates

Thursday, 22 March 2007

3:00 pm

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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Question 2: To ask the Minister for Education and Science the number of schools that include an oral exam for junior certificate; if in the context of her announcement on the increases in marks for oral Irish in the leaving certificate she will also address the lack of emphasis on spoken Irish at junior certificate level; if she will introduce an oral exam in all schools at junior certificate level; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [10858/07]

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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Only a minority of schools avail of the optional oral examination in the junior certificate at present. For example, the following oral examinations were undertaken in 2006: French — 506 oral examinations in 22 schools; Spanish — 80 oral examinations in six schools; German — 267 oral examinations in 14 schools; and Gaeilge — 335 oral examinations in 12 schools.

With regard to the oral Irish examination I recently announced significant changes to the proportion of marks awarded for oral Irish in both the junior certificate and leaving certificate exams. These changes will apply to students enrolling in first year in 2007 and will mean that, in 2010, there will be 40% of marks available for the optional oral Irish examination in the junior certificate, and with effect from 2012, 40% of marks will be available for oral Irish in the leaving certificate.

The syllabus for junior certificate Irish focuses strongly on developing communicative skills. Oral work is critically important in improving students' competence and confidence in this regard and should be a key component of day-to-day teaching of the language from the beginning of junior cycle.

I am determined to increase the emphasis on the spoken language at junior certificate level. However, I am conscious that the model of oral examination in place for the leaving certificate examination is not replicable at junior cycle. Issues of examiner supply and school disruption mean that implementing junior and leaving certificate oral examinations through a totally externally based approach would be unsustainable. I recognise the need to explore the scope for a different approach at junior cycle, where the stakes are not so high. I believe that the increase in the marks for the optional oral component in the junior certificate from 20% to 40% from 2010 will be an incentive for more schools to provide this option.

In addition, I have asked the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, to undertake a study of the possible use of information technologies such as mobile phones or the Internet in oral assessment. A report on this issue is expected later this year. I have also provided for the establishment of a new support service for post-primary teachers of Irish, An tSeirbhís Tacaíochta Gaeilge Dara Leibhéal, which will provide professional development for teachers from autumn 2007.

The announcement I have made clearly gives advance notice to schools of a significant shift in emphasis towards Irish as a spoken language where students can communicate and interact in a spontaneous way and where Irish is spoken every day in schools. This is a new challenge for teachers and will be supported by comprehensive investment in professional development programmes and the provision of updated and age-appropriate materials using new technology to optimum effect.

The way to bring new life to a language is to be able to converse in it every day. These changes are intended to strengthen the emphasis on oral competence in Irish in our schools and ensure that Irish is taught in our schools in a way that is interesting and relevant and promotes a positive attitude to the language among our young people.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

Other developments in respect of promoting the Irish language in our schools that I announced recently include the provision of an additional €1 million for An Chomhairle um Oideachas Gaeltachta agus Gaelscolaiochta over the next three years for the development of resources and materials to support the teaching of subjects through Irish; an additional €150,000 to enable second level pupils in disadvantaged areas to attend Gaeltacht summer courses; and the introduction of week-long summer camps in Irish to enable up to 600 primary school students in designated disadvantaged schools to participate in fun activities through the medium of Irish. I am confident that, taken together, these measures will improve students' ability to speak our native language.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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I thank the Minister for her answer and welcome the steps she is taking with regard to the leaving certificate. My concern is that there is a gap in the middle. The curriculum at primary level is initially focused on the spoken language, but when children move up to post-primary level, many of them become turned off the language because of the difficulty in dealing with a largely written curriculum.

Is the Minister concerned that, as her answer stated, only 12 schools with 335 students take the oral option? That is a tiny fraction of children and schools. Does the Minister intend to take action to ensure this is mainstream within the junior certificate cycle? Will she consider making it obligatory for an oral examination to be held at junior certificate level? In light of the difficulty involved in the logistics of having people to carry out the examination, has the Minister explored how that can be done, possibly by carrying it out within the school itself. I know there is an issue with the teachers in that regard, but to what extent has the Minister examined that option? I am sure she must be concerned that such a small number is involved at junior certificate level.

Has the Minister considered the proposal by Conradh na Gaeilge, the Union of Students in Ireland and the Union of Secondary Students that she consider introducing two subjects at leaving certificate level, one of which would focus on the language while the other would focus on the more cultural and literary elements of Irish? They have also made a proposal in respect of much more immersion for student teachers in the area of language. Has the Minister carried out any evaluation of the standard of the teaching of Irish at primary and post-primary level?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an Teachta as ucht na tacaíochta a thug sí do na moltaí seo because they are very significant proposals. It is the first time in 35 years that a change has been made in oral Irish. Naturally, I would love to see more schools offering the oral Irish examination at junior certificate level. I believe that many teachers are not aware it is an option in the first instance. Probably the greatest barrier is that the two teaching unions have established positions against teacher-based assessment.

This morning, I visited Newpark comprehensive school, where students take the oral examination at junior certificate level, certainly in the modern languages, I am not too sure about the Gaeilge. In this school, a class teacher examines another class, so one does not examine one's own students. That is certainly a very feasible way of doing it. It is done in a very objective manner without interfering in the running of the school. Local arrangements could be made between two schools if one wished to take it outside one's realm altogether. There is great potential to do that.

In the first instance, I hope to remind all schools that this exists and to set out how it can be done. I also want to encourage people, on the basis of the extra percentage that is being given, that it is valuable for the students to do it. Third, I want to point out that not only is it of value in itself, but it is a direct preparation for the leaving certificate, given that emphasis will be placed on the spoken language within the schools. I am awaiting the NCCA's work, which it has begun to undertake, on the various ways of doing an oral examination using mobile technology, such as mobile phones and the Internet. That could be quite exciting and would be a new challenge within schools. Obviously, as I stated in my answer, there would be considerable professional development for teachers because I recognise that is needed. Normally, when we introduce changes for the curriculum, we do it with a two-year run-in, as we are doing with the technology subjects, which I announced two years ago and which will be introduced in September of this year. It is the love and use of the language I want to change, rather than just the examination, which is why I gave a five-year lead-in to this one.

I met Conradh na Gaeilge to discuss its proposal, about which I have two concerns. First, it would be very elitist to have two separate leaving certificate honours courses. If that is the case, ordinary mainstream schools would not be able to offer the two choices because they would not have the capacity to offer an alternative leaving certificate level. The NCCA proposals in that regard were somewhat similar.

The question of giving extra points for honours Irish also arose. That argument has been made in respect of honours mathematics, the sciences——

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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That is not contained in this proposal.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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There are proposals out there relating to that. I would like to think that a student attending school in Limerick, Thurles, or Offaly will get the same opportunity as one attending a gaeilcoláiste such as Coláiste Eoin Íosagáin or one in Galway or elsewhere, and that it would not just become the preserve of one group. That is what would happen if one ended up with a curriculum split in two.

Given that only 50% of the leaving certificate examination goes for the written paper, that in itself must be revamped and I will always ensure that literature is a part of that examination. That is also very important because we have such a wealth of literary culture.