Dáil debates

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

6:15 pm

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating this topical issue debate and welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Ciarán Cannon.

As the Minister is aware, recent surveys have found that Irish pupils are doing well generally but are finding certain subjects, such as mathematics and science, more challenging. It is clear we are seeing the early positive results of the national strategy to improve literacy and numeracy among children and young people. We know from numerous international studies that a solid foundation in numeracy and literacy is essential not only for further educational attainment but also for daily life. It is also essential that we focus on the skills required to meet the specific opportunities in the labour market.

With the recent concern about skill levels, mathematics and science, the Minister, Deputy Quinn's, attention has turned to the time allocated to various school subjects, notably Irish and religion. I will focus on the issue of Irish. Is í an Ghaeilge ár dteanga dhúchais agus léiríonn an adonáireamh go bhfuil sé ar chumas 1.7 milliún saoránach an teanga a labhairt. I mo chontae féin, Gaillimh, tá 21% sa chontae agus níos mó sa chathair ábalta an teanga a labhairt. Laistigh dár gcóras oideachais bíonn beagáinín faoi bhun 450,000 daoine óga ag labhairt Gaeilge gach lá.

Sin ráite, taobh amuigh den chóras oideachais bíonn beagnach 80,000 saoránach ag labhairt ár gcéad teanga gach lá. Tá sé soiléir ó seo, cé chomh tábhachtach agus atá an córas oideachas don Ghaeilge. Sin an fáth go bhfuil mé chomh imníoch maidir leis an ráiteas gur cóir an t-am atá leagtha amach don teanga a laghdú. Is gá dúinn a chinntiú go mbeidh dóthain ama á roinnt ar réimse leathan ábhar, ach bheadh sé gearr-radharcach breathnú ar laghdú ama don Ghaeilge mar réiteach chun an caighdeán a fheabhsú i réimse eile.

It would be shortsighted to view the curtailment of Irish as a solution to improving standards in areas highlighted by the Minister. We must have a serious national debate about the place of Irish in our society. In this debate, all shades of opinion must recognise a number of points. Untold damage has been done to the reputation of Irish among older generations on account of how the language was taught. Instead of an inspirational, student centred approach, based on imparting communication skills, Irish was taught in the same manner as English with poetry and prose drummed in at the expense of linguistic skills. In effect, we were directed to run before we could walk. The negativity that such an approach fostered lived on after one's education. Minds began to close and the problem was exacerbated by the grammar gardaí who highlighted mistakes in place of encouragement.

Outside the education system, things have changed, with Radio na Gaeltachta, TG4, Gaelscoileanna and Foinsetransforming the fortunes of Irish by adapting new approaches. The latest developments to revitalise and encourage include a new Irish language smart phone, an iPhone app, children's television programmes, innovative and stimulating television programmes, particularly documentaries, and new products such as BábógBaby.

A similar new approach is needed in our classrooms and we need to focus on imparting communication skills to stimulate an interest in, and encourage the use of, Irish. It is not acceptable that, after 14 years of Irish classes, and less than half on a foreign language, a person may graduate with a much greater command of a foreign language. We must remember citizens who left school with a poor command of Irish, tarnished by negative memories. I acknowledge the opportunities before us, including the reform of the junior certificate, blian na Gaeilge in 2013 and the different features of the 20 year strategy for the Irish language. Time is against us and we must transform how we teach Irish in our schools and within the education system before we reach the point of no return.

6:25 pm

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I am taking this issue on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. It is agreed that reform is needed not only in how Irish is taught but how other languages are taught in schools. As Deputy Kyne points out, we need a greater emphasis on spoken language and oral fluency. Irish is in the vanguard of these reforms.

Reform is being considered in the context of the 20 year strategy for the Irish language, mindful of current resource constraints. The strategy contains commitments that a high standard of all-Irish education will be provided to school students whose parents or guardians so wish; that Gaelscoileanna will continue to be supported at primary level and all-Irish provision at post-primary level will be developed to meet follow-on demand; and that Irish language pre-school education will continue to be supported and third level education through Irish will be further developed. One of the key curriculum initiatives is the national strategy, Literacy and Numeracy for Learning and Life, which the Minister published in July 2011. The strategy acknowledges that learners in Irish schools experience language learning in both English and Irish throughout their school careers. We also have a range of linguistic settings in our schools - English-medium schools, Gaelscoileanna, Gaelcholáistí and Gaeltacht schools.

Early childhood education is also available in both Irish medium and English medium settings. This diversity is part of the richness and strength of the Irish education system. However, it is also important to recognise that diversity brings particular challenges for the teaching and learning of literacy. As part of the strategy, the NCCA is currently developing an integrated language curriculum for primary schools that will include Irish and English and be available by 2014 for infant classes. Over subsequent years, the language curriculum for senior classes will also be revised.

At post-primary level, the framework for the junior cycle sets out the Minister's position. The framework will be implemented from September 2014. In line with the literacy and numeracy strategy, the Irish language syllabus will be revised for implementation in schools from 2015. Without wishing to pre­empt the work of the NCCA, it is likely that the revised curriculum will have a much greater emphasis on oral Irish. One of the 24 statements of learning that forms part of the framework for the junior cycle is that the student should reach a level of proficiency in a second language, which is Irish for most students, in reading, writing, speaking and listening. In addition, the junior cycle framework allows for the development of short courses. I encourage schools to develop short courses in Irish, which can help to develop additional fluency and support literacy.

At senior cycle, there has also been a focus on the development of students' oral Irish competency as seen in the increased allocation of marks, up to 40%, in the oral examination in the leaving certificate. The approach to the teaching of Irish is being considered across the curriculum with a view to achieving fluency for our students.

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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I welcome some of the initiatives enacted and the increase in the percentage for oral Irish in the leaving certificate. The Minister stated that, without wanting to pre-empt the NCCA report, it is likely the revised curriculum will have a greater emphasis on oral Irish. My concern is the comment of the Minister, as reported, about the amount of time we spend teaching Irish. The Minister referred to Irish and religion but I am addressing Irish today. I represent the largest Gaeltacht area and there is concern that this will lead to denigration of the Irish language. Focusing on mathematics and science by reducing the time spent on Irish will not necessarily improve the situation and may have a detrimental effect on Irish. We must be conscious of the 20 year strategy for the Irish language. In year 19 of the strategy, there is no point in saying that things are not going as well in the primary and secondary education system as had been hoped. We must ensure we continue and improve the system of spoken Irish and the way it is taught in our primary schools. Reducing the number of hours, without a clear strategy or a statement of how we will protect the language, is a concern.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Kyne should not have any concern about the commitment of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, to the Irish language and its teaching in our schools. The curriculum reforms being undertaken in respect of the Irish language are extensive. The way Irish is being taught should change and is changing. There will be greater emphasis on spoken and communicative Irish.

Our young people spend 12 or 13 years of their lives studying the Irish language and the vast majority do not leave school with a serious degree of competency or fluency in the spoken language. Our emphasis should be on addressing this and the change being implemented across the system will lead to greater fluency and competency in the spoken language.