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Gaeloideachas: Ó neart go neart

Over 50 years on from the founding of Northern Ireland’s first bunscoil and five years on from the founding of its second meánscoil in Dungiven, County Derry, Irish-medium education, or Gaeloideachas, is going from strength to strength. Odrán Waldron discusses its growth and the challenges ahead with Gaelcholáiste Dhoire principal Diarmaid Ua Bruadair and Maria Thomasson, acting Chief Executive Officer of Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta.

“Gaelscolaíocht is on the scene here for 50 years now. It started very small, with one school and a handful of students, but now we have over 7,000 students in Gaelscoileanna and we have two meánscoil, one of which, Coláiste Feirste, was founded in 1991. That’s nearly 30 years old. We also have Gaelcholáiste Doire, which was founded in 2015,” Ua Bruadair says, surveying the progress of Gaeloideachas he has seen in his lifetime. A native of Gaeltacht Bóthar Seoighe, the so-called “Irish Houses” on west Belfast’s Shaw’s Road, Ua Bruadair has a unique insight to the development, being the principal of Gaelcholáiste Dhoire, parent to a Coláiste Feirste pupil and former Coláiste Feirste teacher.

“It’s clear that something is working and that parents want to send their children to Gaelscoileanna. It’s important then that that opportunity is made available to the pupils. We are seeing now in the city that some bunscoileanna [Irish-medium primary schools] are full and there are waiting lists now. This is something that happened in Dublin years ago, but now in Belfast there is that same level of demand. The same thing is happening in the only meánscoil [Irish medium secondary school] in Belfast; even though there’s only one school there are a lot of students seeking places. This year, for example, there are something like 180 students going into first year in Coláiste Ferste, something we couldn’t have expected even 10 years ago.”

Across two interviews with Ua Bruadair and Thomasson, both conducted in Irish, an image of extremely positive growth is painted, but this growth has led to concerns about the number of teachers being sufficient enough to meet demand, specifically in the two meánscoil, where fluent Irish must be paired with expertise in a given subject. For Northern Ireland, where the news of teacher numbers is often the exact opposite, that too many are qualifying per year, forcing mass emigration amongst young teachers, this may sound counterintuitive, yet it is the reality for Gaeloideachas.

The problem is quite simple: while both a B.Ed. and PGCE for bunscoil teachers exists in St Mary’s University College Belfast, neither is offered for meánscoil teachers in St Mary’s, Queen’s University Belfast or Ulster University. STEM subjects are cited by both as a particular deficiency. The closest thing to a qualification in Irish-medium secondary education that exists is a language enhancement course offered by St Mary’s to QUB and UU PGCE students. Both Thomasson and Ua Bruadair credit St Mary’s with good work in the area, but stress that standalone degrees are needed for second-level teachers in order to satisfy ever-growing demand.

You see in Dungiven that if you provide secondary education through Irish, parents will take it. We started in 2015 with 13 students and in September we will have 227. Even without all the facilities, we’ve done that growth; imagine if we did have the facilities.

— Diarmaid Ua Bruadair

“The biggest challenge in front of us is the supply of teachers, specifically having enough with specific subject expertise and the ability to teach through Irish,” Thomasson says. “We have two meánscoil and three strands in Donaghmore, Armagh and Castlewellan. Historically, those strands put out the word for what subjects they need to fill from a staffing perspective and if they can’t get them, those subjects are not available through Irish. The students then end up doing some of their chosen subjects in English. Obviously, you can’t do that in Gaelcholáiste Dhoire or in Coláiste Feirste.

“These two schools are completely different, which is inevitable because they are based in different communities and have different facilities and the same thing doesn’t work for both schools. In Belfast, you have a bigger community of local Irish speakers and even if you can’t draw on that, people are more likely to have moved to the city than they are to have moved to Dungiven. What Diarmaid does is take teachers with a bit of Irish and a qualification in a given subject; Gaelcholáiste Dhoire then gives them the opportunity to improve their Irish. They employ them for five days a week but give them classes four of those days and dedicate the extra day to diplomas or language classes in order to improve the teacher’s Irish.

“Coláiste Feirste do it the other way around, they employ a lot of ex-pupils who understand the school and Gaeloideachas and if they’re lucky, they’ll get someone with a specialised subject, but if they don’t they take the person with Irish with an interest in a certain subject and take the hit to allow that person to get fully up to speed with the given subject. It’s them that has to take the hit because as of now there has been no support from the Department of Education for things like this.”

Both Ua Bruadair and Thomasson are keen to stress the positives of Gaeloideachas and immersive education. “I have never been without work thanks to the Irish language. Nobody in my family speaks Irish, and people within it told me it was a waste of time because I would never use it. I can also speak Spanish, but it’s not Spanish that has kept me employed,” Thomasson says.

“There are millions of people out there with Spanish, I am not needed. For every job I could get in Spanish, I could get 10 in Irish. A secondary school teacher qualified with Irish would most likely be able to speak English too, and so could teach in either medium and in the North can teach in either primary or secondary schools. Teachers who only have English don’t have that breadth of opportunity… Gael Linn and other organisations need to be communicating with schools about the opportunities that are open to people with Irish, such as going to Brussels to become a translator, or working here and not just as a teacher. You can be a librarian, a secretary, a drama teacher, a counsellor.”

Thomasson speaks of a need to “normalise” Irish and it is perhaps through Ua Bruadair’s experience of fighting for facilities for Gaelcholáiste Dhoire that that slow process of normalisation is best viewed. “When the school was founded, it was founded in a castle, a lovely building, but not exactly practical,” he explains. “Then a decision was made to build a block with a science laboratory, a computer room a home economics room and a technology room. In the end, the Education Authority refused to fund the technology room. We had to fight for those rooms.

“The argument then was about whether or not we would have those rooms; that fight has now changed. The Government and Education Authority now accept that these facilities should be there, so we’re now fighting for when we will get them. It takes too much time to make these rooms available, to build them, to get planning permission all while our schools are growing. We don’t have the right facilities still, but at least now the Government recognises that they are needed.”

Thomasson has seen similar normalisation even where Irish has previously been resisted in her dealings with the Department of Education: “While Gaeloideachas wasn’t mentioned in the New Decade, New Approach deal, what was mentioned was the translation hub. When Peter Weir originally came in as the Minister before the Assembly fell, communications from the Department were trilingual — English, Irish and Ulster Scots — but on his first day, that was ended. Inspectors with fluent Irish were sending reports to Gaelscoileanna in English. Now, with this central translation hub, our understanding is that all of that is going to be resolved. We have to go that way and it is progress.”

Ua Bruadair and Thomasson both see exponential growth ahead for Gaeloideachas if the demand for teachers can be met. For Ua Bruadair, four programmes must be begun as soon as possible: a post-primary PGCE in St Mary’s similar to the bunscoil PGCE; a B.Ed for post-primary education through Irish; a system for training teachers who would like to change from English-medium schools to Gaelscoileanna; and a system for retraining for teachers who have Irish, an Irish degree for example, to equip them to teach specific subjects.

Education Minister Peter Weir visits Coláiste Feirste following its reopening.

A secondary school teacher qualified with Irish would most likely be able to speak English too, and so could teach in either medium and in the North can teach in either primary or secondary schools. Teachers who only have English don’t have that breadth of opportunity.

— Maria Thomasson

Thomasson says that Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta presented the Department of Education with a pilot scheme that would have helped both the supply of teachers for Gaeloideachas and lessened the excess of teachers being trained by moving 10 of the university places in other teaching subjects towards Gaeloideachas. Without a minister, the Department were unable to make such a decision, and the outbreak of Covid-19 after just one meeting on the topic with Minister Weir meant that the scheme could not be rolled out in September 2020 as Thomasson had hoped.

The challenges are there for those dedicated to Gaeloideachas to tackle along with the Department of Education and the Education Authority, but both Ua Bruadair and Thomasson are more than optimistic for the future of the sector. It is not hard to see why: 7,000 children currently attend Gaelscoileanna in Northern Ireland and in 2017, Comhairle na Gaelscoilaíochta research predicted a doubling of the number of students in Irish-medium education by 2032. “There’s no other option, this work has to be done. Hopefully, when that’s done, the teachers who are saying there’s no jobs with Irish might see the opportunities out there. You can do any job that you can do through English in Irish too,” Thomasson says.

“Our gold standard is independent schools. We are now finalising our three-year development plan out to 2023, which includes a kind of stress testing in given areas. We don’t found schools, but our research informs the Department’s decisions on whether or not to found a meánscoil. The process is very long, but at the minute we are looking at west Tyrone as an area with a lot of demand. We were just discussing this, but the issue of teacher supply did come up. Still, we have to be positive and continue working.”

Ua Bruadair concludes: “You see in Dungiven that if you provide secondary education through Irish, parents will take it. We started in 2015 with 13 students and in September we will have 227. Even without all the facilities, we’ve done that growth; imagine if we did have the facilities.

“Gaeloideachas is a bit like the chicken and the egg; the Government says that they won’t provide the facilities because the numbers aren’t there, but the numbers don’t come without the facilities. Coláiste Feirste proves that. It used to be 90 or 100 pupils going into a year, but now with the new buildings it’s 180. Everybody sees the advantages of Gaeloideachas and hopefully we will see more independent schools founded out of the strands in places such as Donaghmore, Armagh and Castlewellan. With the right conditions, such as equal provision of facilities and training of teachers, it would make progress so much faster.”

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