Seanad debates

Tuesday, 15 November 2005

5:00 pm

Tom Morrissey (Progressive Democrats)
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I thank the Minister, Deputy O'Dea, for coming to the Seanad this evening to respond on the Adjournment to my comments about the language needs of foreign primary school pupils, an issue I last raised approximately 12 months ago. I am raising the problems in this regard again this evening because they are continuing to increase. Additional resources need to be invested to assist schools which cater for large numbers of pupils who speak very little English. The resources of certain schools are under great strain and teachers are under great pressure because 40% or 50% of pupils in some of their classes are not from Ireland. I am firmly of the view that one size no longer fits all in such circumstances. We need to develop a programme to deal specifically with some of the schools to which I refer.

I acknowledge that tremendous work has been done in areas like language support, learning support and special needs education in recent years. Many additional teachers have been employed in such areas. It is quite common for pupils without a word of English to present themselves in second, third or fourth classes. Language disability in a classroom context is one of the greatest disabilities a child can face. A simple task like taking the roll can be one of the most difficult tasks of the day for a teacher if the children in his or her classroom cannot comprehend that they are being asked to state whether they are present in school. I would like language support and social integration services for such children to be brought into a new era. If children without any English language skills enrol in a school six months before the beginning of a new school year, they should be given language support before the school year starts.

If we continue with the current level of resources, there will be a great cost to society. Our schools are trying to play catch-up at present. Not only do children need to be helped to develop their English language skills, but their parents must also be supported before their children enter classrooms. Those of us who are familiar with gaelscoileanna in our local areas know it is unheard of for a child without a word of Irish to be enrolled in first, second or third class in such a school. The equivalent is happening in English language schools — people are enrolling children who do not have a word of English and teachers are being asked to deal with the problems which follow. We need to provide resources in a different manner than we have done to date.

Large numbers of people from other countries are required in this country and we accept that they are coming here. If the integration of such people is as important as we consider it to be, we need to ensure they are helped to overcome language problems, which comprise the most serious form of disability of all, especially for children. I fear that some children will be lost from the school system within a few years if we do not address this matter. If, as a result, we have to spend additional moneys on social services, rather than education, we will be paying dearly for not taking action. I acknowledge that great strides have been made in areas like special needs, learning support and language support. We have to offer children who cannot speak English more than 45 minutes of language support outside the classroom, however, as that is not enough. The parents of such children also need to be brought into this equation so that they understand what is required if their children are to be integrated successfully into classrooms and schools. I hope the Government will address this matter in a different manner soon.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Morrissey for raising this matter. The approach of the Department of Education and Science to the increasingly diverse cultural and ethnic nature of the pupil base in Irish schools is twofold. It is promoting and facilitating the delivery of an intercultural education to all children and is providing the specific supports needed by children whose first language is not English to help them to succeed at school. Intercultural education involves respecting and celebrating diversity, as well as promoting equality and human rights within and outside the school community. The Minister for Education and Science launched guidelines for primary schools on intercultural education in May 2005. This valuable resource was prepared by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to support teachers and schools in developing a more inclusive learning environment and giving students the knowledge and skills they need to participate in a multicultural world. The Department provided €167,000 to ensure that every primary teacher in the country will receive a copy of the guidelines in English or Irish. Corresponding guidelines for intercultural education in post-primary schools are being prepared and will be available early in 2006.

With regard to the provision of resources to enable children with low levels of competence in the English language to succeed at school, language support takes the form of financial assistance, additional temporary teacher posts or portions of teacher posts. The level of support provided to any school is determined by the numbers of non-English-speaking students enrolled. Each school management can decide on the structure of the support to be provided in its own school. An allocation of two years of language support for each pupil is provided by the Department. Schools with 14 or more qualifying pupils get an additional full-time temporary teacher, while those with 28 or more get two teachers. A third post may be allocated following consideration by the Department's inspectorate in certain exceptional circumstances.

Primary schools with between three and 13, inclusive, non-English-speaking pupils receive grant assistance of €6,348.69 while schools with between nine and 13 such pupils receive grant assistance of €9,523.04. In the current school year, grant assistance will be provided to approximately 425 primary schools with 13 or less non-English-speaking non-national pupils. In the case of post-primary schools which have fewer than 14 non-national pupils with significant English language difficulties enrolled, additional teaching hours, ranging from three hours per week in respect of one such pupil to 19.5 hours per week in respect of 13 pupils, are sanctioned.

In the current school year, the Department has provided 517 language support teachers at primary level and 249 whole-time equivalent teachers at second level to support such pupils, representing an investment of €34 million. Schools granted full language support teacher posts receive additional financial support to enable the purchase of resource materials suitable for use within the language support class or mainstream class.

All teachers have a role in supporting students to help them acquire the necessary language skills in the context of each subject being taught. The purpose of language support is to acquire sufficient language skills to enable students engage with the curriculum rather than to develop a particular level of competence in the English language. Specific language support provision is intended to complement other supports provided by the Department to schools, for example, resource, learning support and other ex-quota posts.

Teachers are provided with in-service training through Integrate Ireland Language and Training Limited, IILT. IILT provides training seminars for language support teachers, part-time or whole time, along with classroom materials, including the European language portfolio, to assist them in meeting the English language needs of their pupils or students. It also develops classroom materials in partnership with practising classroom teachers. Grant support to IILT to provide training and resources for teachers and language tuition for refugees is currently in the order of €1.4 million. A further additional resource is available to teachers in the form of guidelines on teaching English as an additional language. These guidelines are available on the NCCA website.

All children residing in Ireland have a right to education, regardless of legal status. Education issues for newcomers to Ireland are currently dealt with by a number of different sections in the Department of Education and Science. To ensure the better co-ordination of policy in this area, the Department has recently established an internal steering committee comprised of senior representatives from these areas which will co-ordinate the Department's response to the education of newcomers to Ireland, identify emerging issues relating to them, propose solutions to the issues identified and arrange for the implementation of agreed solutions and policies.

One of the priorities of the committee will be to examine current provision for the education of newcomers in primary schools with a view to establishing the appropriate level of supports. Preliminary work in this area has already started. I would like to thank Senator Morrissey once again for raising this matter in the House. I realise that my reply does not address social integration, which is the main thrust of his argument, but I will ensure that the Minister learns about his remarks.