Text size

O’Dowd’s Irish schools agenda causes concern

August 1, 2013

IT was with alarm that I read a recent article in your paper entitled, ‘Benefit of Irish-medium education is there for all’, by Dr Micheal O Duibh.

In it, Dr O Duibh claims that “Irish-medium education offers a system which improves children’s skills in English and Irish, making them more tolerant.” I challenge the implication that children who do not learn Irish are somehow less tolerant.
However, more worryingly, his article demonstrates one of the threats to our education system: minister O’Dowd’s preference for Irish-medium schools. These schools receive more funding than other schools by virtue of teaching through Irish.
Elsewhere in our education system, Minister O’Dowd uses the argument that a school is too small to be viable. Not so with Irish-medium schools.
O’Dowd’s long-term plans for education across Northern Ireland must be exposed. This is to prevent the Northern Irish people sleep-walking into the Sinn Fein utopia of Irish-medium, all-ability comprehensives.
Nicole Lappin
Waringstown, Co Down
SF’s language ideology is lost in translation
SURELY the Irish language should be treated as any other language (Comment, July 25)?
If a school wants to introduce it as subject – as French, or German – then so be it. But I fail to see the logic in having an all-Irish-medium school. What does the future hold for the language outside of the school?
Last week, I stayed in a town south of Dublin and travelled around. Apart from bilingual signage for directions and on public buildings, I did not see any sign of the Irish language being used.  Many non-Irish people live and work in Dublin – their main working language being English. There was also a proliferation of English language colleges to enable other nationalities wanting to speak English. Some of the local people I spoke to had not looked at Irish since they left school.
In Northern Ireland, successive Sinn Fein education ministers have used their position to push ahead with this ideology.
In the year 2010/11, the minister, John O’Dowd, spent £110,000 on Irish translation services – up from £68,000 the year before. Also, CCEA spent £598,828, compared with £98,000 in 2006/07.  If this principle of translation were applied to other languages of foreign nationals living in Northern Ireland, the cost would be insurmountable.
Maybe Sinn Fein need to take their heads out of the sand as the cost of translation alone is more than enough.
Hugh Morrow
By e-mail


Watch your language in shared education debate

July 31, 2013

Irish-medium schools have their place but not in the vanguard of a truly integrated education system, writes Danny Kinahan

Dr Micheal O Duibh is chief executive of the representative body for Irish-medium education in Northern Ireland. On this page last week, he sought to position his sector as key to the advancement of shared education here. Dr O Duibh is mistaken.
While recent education ministers have looked favourably on the Irish-medium sector and while minority languages were upheld in the Belfast Agreement, the Ulster Unionist Party doesn’t believe that any particular sector should be given undue advantage over another.
Unfortunately, that is what the current, flawed ESA (Education) Bill is shamelessly trying to do – and that is why my party will be challenging it.
The Ulster Unionist Party believes that pupils and parents should be free to choose schools and subjects and, when it comes to languages, have a range of options which will serve them well for life and work in the global marketplace. French, German, Chinese, Spanish and, indeed, Irish are all useful.
If you look at the Department of Education’s figures regarding the strength of Irish-medium education, you will see there are 28 primary schools and one post-primary, along with some 13 Irish-medium units of differing types.
Between them, all they have are only 4,600 pupils; that’s 1.3% of the entire Northern Ireland school population of more than 313,000 young people.
In spite of their small market-share, we recognise Irish-medium as a valid choice for some parents; however, the real questions are whether they deliver a quality education and whether there is enough demand to make the sector sustainable.
On the issue of quality education, figures show that, in 2012/13, 43.5% of pupils who attended the only Irish-medium post-primary school, Colaiste Feirste, achieved five GCSEs, including English and maths at grades A* to C. This is significantly below the overall Northern Ireland average of 60.1% for post-primaries.
While I fully acknowledge that there are a range of attainment levels across every sector, unfortunately for Dr O Duibh, the limited evidence available does not demonstrate that Irish-medium schools offer an outstanding education.
On the issue of demand, while the Ulster Unionist Party does not universally accept the arbitrary Bain benchmark of 105 pupils supposedly needed to make primary schools sustainable, the minister himself seems wedded to it.
Of the 28 Irish-medium primary schools, 17 fall short of minimum enrolment numbers. How, then, can he possibly justify opening new Irish-medium schools, often in large urban areas, when there is insufficient local demand?
The chief executive of Comhairle na Gaelscolaiochta quoted an interesting statistic: he indicated that, because 72% of Irish-medium schools are within the “other maintained sector”, they were somehow more integrated.
The fact is, of the 29 Irish-medium schools, 21 have no Protestant pupils, and the remaining eight all have fewer than five.
Out of 4,600 pupils, there are no more than 40 Protestants pupils. Hardly a statistic that turns the Irish-medium sector into the flag-carrier of shared education.
Shared education must now become a definitive target, rather than a distant aspiration.
Micheal O Duibh is mistaken if he seriously expects the rest of us to buy the notion of Irish-medium education leading the vanguard towards a single, shared system.
Danny Kinahan MLA is UUP education spokesman and vice-chairman of the Assembly’s education committee.


Fury as John O’Dowd is accused of spending twice as much on Irish as on literacy and numeracy consultations

July 30, 2013

A Sinn Fein minister has been accused of exploiting his office to pursue party goals rather than policy issues.

But Education Minister John O’Dowd rejected the claims from Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt over cash being spent on public consultations by his department.

Mr Nesbitt – who compiled consultation costs across almost all Stormont departments – said Mr O’Dowd had spent twice the amount consulting the public on Irish-medium education compared to improving literacy and numeracy.

The Ulster Unionist chief, who also chairs the Stormont committee which monitors First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, has called for changes in the way decisions on public consultations are made.

Written Assembly answers show the Department of Education spent more than £46,500 on a review of Irish-medium education since 2007 – when devolution returned – compared to just £22,000 on a literacy and numeracy strategy.

In 2008, for example, the department spent £46,447 on a formal launch with documents online, a series of public meetings and meetings on request from various groups – compared to £22,827 on a review of the literacy and numeracy strategy which involved Barnardos and the Parent Advice Centre, and £23,418 on the “every school a good school” initiative on special educational needs.

Mr Nesbitt argued: “Sinn Fein are certainly following their own agenda in pursuit of the promotion of the Irish language. A ferocious amount of money has been spent, the sums involved are expodential.

“It has spent twice more on consulting on the Irish language than on literacy and numeracy; and significantly more than was spent on the early years strategy; a vital component of the education strategy for the entire province.”

Mr O’Dowd hit back, however, saying: “Public consultation is an important element, and in many instances, a legal requirement in developing policy and legislation.

“Rather than nit-picking over the cost of consultations he should welcome the fact that key stakeholders, elected representatives and indeed his constituents are afforded the opportunity to respond to key changes being proposed for education here.

“It is also disingenuous of Mr Nesbitt to use the cost of consultations as an indication of departmental priorities. According to his flawed logic I am not focusing on key areas such as literacy and numeracy and early years. The reality is that these are two of the areas that I have prioritised.”

He said since 2010, when the draft Early Years (0-6) Strategy was launched, investment in pre-school services has increased from £73m to £86m.

“I would suggest Mr Nesbitt should check his facts in future before commenting,” the minister added.


Some of the issues Stormont Departments have launched public consultations on:

* Department of Agriculture and Rural Development: Eggs and chicks regulations, Lough Neagh level scheme.

* Department of Social Development: Shankill Road and Falls Road tree planting schemes, virtual shops at Castlereagh Street, Donegall Road pedestrian island.

* Department of Education: Teacher education in climate change, increased contributions to the NI Teachers Pension Scheme.


Benefit of Irish-medium education is there for all

July 25, 2013

It’s mistaken to present Irish-medium education as a barrier to shared schooling. In fact, the opposite is the case, writes Micheal O Duibh

Currently, 6% of Irish-medium primary schools are within the controlled sector, 22% within the Catholic maintained sector and 72% within the other maintained sector, showing that education through Irish can be a choice for everyone.

In the context of a shared future, the question has been asked if we can have integrated schools in the Irish-medium sector.

The truth is that 72% of all Irish-medium primary schools are independent, outside of the controlled or Catholic-maintained sector and have pupils from Catholic, Protestant and other backgrounds. 

International research shows that bilingual pupils have a greater tolerance of other cultures, something which is most relevant to the principles of shared education.

Research commissioned by the Department of Education for Northern Ireland (Deni) has indicated that Irish-medium children were more open to cultural diversity. It is wrong to present the option of Irish-medium education as a barrier to advancing shared education; the opposite is true.

Irish-medium education is an innovative way of advancing shared education, making schools sustainable and providing pupils with the advantages of bilingualism.

The choice of Irish-medium is a linguistic choice, which can be catered for within any sector. It should, therefore, not be a surprise to learn the Irish-medium sector wishes to share immersion education with more communities.

Its representative body, Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta, provides support to communities that express an interest in Irish-medium education. It believes that, through the establishment of various school settings that meet different community needs, education through Irish for all communities is possible.

As such, there is a strong case for the establishment of Irish-medium units within controlled schools, for converting English-medium controlled schools to Irish-medium controlled schools, or consideration of federated models between Irish-medium and English-medium. This could answer a number of challenging questions facing schools in the controlled sector.

Schooling through Irish, at its simplest, involves the delivery of the curriculum through Irish. An Irish-medium setting can deliver the six criteria mentioned in Deni’s sustainable schools policy:

  • Quality educational experience – Irish-medium provision within the school would ensure a quality educational experience, increasing pupils’ understanding of language, enhancing reading, writing, aural and oral abilities, while offering the other advantages of bilingualism
  • Stable enrolment trends – Irish-medium education could attract more pupils from across communities and ensure stable enrolment
  • Sound financial position –Schools could benefit from premiums for Irish-medium providers and shared education
  • Strong leadership and management – Irish-medium provision within a school provides those involved with a chance to display dynamic leadership and management
  • Accessibility – Irish-medium provision could be a strong asset in enhancing a school’s accessibility to all communities
  • Strong links with community – Irish-medium provision would strengthen links with all members of the community and encourage greater cultural understanding.

Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta welcomes all communities to consider Irish-medium education for their children, so that they can be part of a global society where the vast majority speak two languages.

Irish-medium education offers a system which improves children’s skills in English and Irish, making them more tolerant while also providing the skills to learn further languages with greater ease.


Majority of parents want school mergers

December 10, 2012

Parents have sent an unequivocal message to the Education Minister as he prepares to make major decisions on the future rationalisation of the schools’ estate — they want their children educated side by side.

And they believe the community — not politicians and civil servants in the Department of Education — should have the say on how closures and amalgamations are carried out.

More than six out of 10 people support merging schools of various backgrounds as a way to save money, according to the latest Belfast Telegraph LucidTalk opinion poll. The survey asked respondents, in light of under pressure education budgets, which of the following options they would consider as a way to save money.

The options included a) cutting back on maintenance in existing schools; b) merging Catholic maintained, state controlled, integrated and Irish medium schools if pupils numbers were low; c) raising taxes and rates or d) abolishing free school transport for children whose parents work.

The overwhelming majority of respondents (61%) stated they would prefer to see mergers of schools with low pupil numbers as opposed to cutting back on school maintenance (10%), increasing taxes and rates (9%) or abolishing free school transport for children whose parents work (20%).

The findings come two days before Education Minister John O’Dowd is due to take receipt of Northern Ireland’s five education and library boards’ area plans for the post primary sector. The North Eastern Education and Library Board last night published its proposals.

The boards should give the Sinn Fein minister food for thought as he considers how the rationalise the schools estate. Proposals to reduce the 85,000 empty desks in our schools include closures, mergers, extending some schools to cater for up to 2,000 pupils and retaining the status quo.

“There is enormous waste with school resources; all schools should pool their resources and facilities,” one respondent said. There was an almost even split in the level of support among Protestants and Catholics for cross-sector mergers with 63% and 56% respectively.

Trevor Lunn MLA said: “These results confirm our impression that the public is more prepared than some politicians to consider radical moves to merge more schools across the different education sectors. “It will bring economic as well as social benefits to our society, and I would urge the department to make it easier to do so.”

The poll also reveals more than half of those surveyed (57%) were unaware of the public consultation process that was criticised for running over the summer holidays with only 15% of poll respondents having given feedback on the area plans.

The Programme for Government has made a commitment to substantially increase the number of schools sharing facilities by 2015 while an advisory group on shared education is due to make its recommendations to the Education Minister in February


DUP blasts TV ad in Irish as waste of public’s money

October 2, 2012

The DUP has accused the Education Minister of wasting money on a new television advertisement broadcast solely in Irish.

The ‘Get Involved’ advert aired during the UTV news at 5.45pm, and was swiftly condemned by East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell. Mr Campbell said the Sinn Fein minister, John O’Dowd, was “potentially acting illegally” and was more concerned with a party political agenda than the education of young people. “At a time when all government budgets are under pressure and schools are seeing budgets cut it is entirely inappropriate for the Education Minister to sanction a politically motivated television advert in Irish,” Mr Campbell said.

“The last census figures we have available highlight that around 90% of the population of Northern Ireland have absolutely no knowledge or use of the Irish language. “Of those who do speak, write or understand the Irish language in Northern Ireland, there are none who are unable to speak English. “This therefore is an example of public money being spent on a party political promotion of the Irish language with no benefit either to the education of our young people or to society as a whole.” Mr Campbell claimed the DUP Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, had withdrawn the Department of Education’s ability to spend money in this way. He called the decision to proceed with the advert a “petty stunt” and said he believed the broadcast could be in breach of the Communications Act (2003). But Mr O’Dowd said he was “disappointed with the criticism” of the campaign, which is also being broadcast on radio and online.

The Education Minister said the advertisement was in keeping with his department’s statutory duty to encourage and facilitate Irish-medium education. “Not only did I go through all the due processes to procure this campaign, but it is one that is of vital importance to our society,” he said. “It is aimed at raising the value we, as a society, place on education.” Meanwhile, at a Belfast City Council meeting last night the DUP failed in its attempt to prevent the erection of a ‘Nollaig Shona Duit’ (Merry Christmas) sign being erected in the grounds of City Hall again this year.


Revealed: The 18 Northern Ireland schools which will share £173m cash pot

June 29, 2012

Eighteen schools will receive new facilities as part of a £173 million investment, Education Minister John O’Dowd has said.

The money includes payments for five special schools. A total of 17 of the schools will be rebuilt.

Foyle College in Derry and Victoria Park primary school in Belfast are among those granted funding, Mr O’Dowd added.

He said: “This will be good news for the pupils and communities directly affected. A world-class educational environment will help us deliver the improvements in educational outcomes we are working so hard to achieve.”

It is the first money made available for major projects since August 2010 when capital spending was frozen. Some schools have been waiting years for urgent rebuilding or refurbishment.

Plans were cancelled while administrators decided where new schools were needed.

Almost two years ago, then education minister Caitriona Ruane released £23 million for 13 schools.

All those projects have been built or are nearing completion.

Mr O’Dowd said there was a clear need for considerable investment in infrastructure.

He added: “The need for investment far exceeds the funding available. While I would like to be in a position to fund everything that needs doing now, I must work within the budget available. This means difficult decisions on future investment plans.”

He said the schools were identified as the highest priority projects following a rigorous selection process.

“No-one visiting our special schools could remain unmoved by the needs of the children attending these facilities. I would dearly like to be able to advance every deserving case immediately,” he added.

“However, within the limits of the funding available to me, I am determined that we make progress with a number of cases at this time.”

In addition to plans for St Gerard’s Resource Centre in west Belfast to occupy a former school and Arvalee Special School to be part of the redevelopment of the former Lisanelly army camp in Omagh, the list of projects to proceed is:

  • Colaiste Feirste, Belfast – £11.9 million
  • St Clare’s Convent & St Colman’s Abbey Primary School, Newry – £6 million
  • St Joseph’s Convent Primary School, Newry – £5.8 million
  • Dromore Central Primary School – £11.4 million
  • Eglinton Primary School – £2.5 million
  • Tannaghmore Primary School, Lurgan – £6 million
  • Ebrington Controlled Primary School, Derry – £4.5 million
  • Foyle College, Derry – £19.6 million
  • St Teresa’s Primary School, Lurgan – £3 million
  • Victoria Park Primary School, Belfast – £4.9 million
  • Enniskillen Model Primary School – £5.7 million
  • St Mary’s Primary School, Banbridge – £5.1 million
  • Bunscoil Bheann Mhadagain, Belfast – £2.5 million
  • Belmont House Special School, Derry – £7.4 million
  • Rossmar Special School, Limavady – £6.4 million
  • Castle Tower, Ballymena – £21.8 million.

Alongside the immediate commencement of these new builds, Mr O’Dowd announced funding to progress a number of additional projects through the planning process.
This will allow building work to commence more quickly when future funding becomes available. In the autumn the minister will unveil a further list of projects to be taken forward.

Mr O’Dowd also announced the establishment of a new Schools Enhancement Programme.

This programme will make available funding of up to £4 million for any individual project refurbishing or extending existing schools. Priority will be given to those supporting amalgamation or rationalisation.

Initially up to £20 million will be available for this programme in 2013-14 with the option of increasing this in 2014-15 depending on the number and quality of proposals.


Shared education is way forward

November 22, 2011

There is something slightly surreal about the plan to start Northern Ireland’s first Ulster Scots school in Co Down.

The primary school at Ballykeigle is under threat of closure by one government department,and yet could be rescued by funds coming from another government department. Those backing the project say the incorporation of an Ulster Scots ethos into the school curriculum will attract more pupils, removing the main reason for potential closure. Those behind the plan have a strong case. It is difficult to argue against the creation of an Ulster Scots school – with possibly more to follow – given that there are already a number of Irish language medium schools at both primary and secondary level throughout Northern Ireland. It has already been accepted that the Ulster Scots heritage, culture and language should be given equal status to Irish, and that both add to the diversity within the province.

However, ideally, and especially at primary school level, it would be better if all traditions in the province were taught in shared schools and from a curriculum that caters for the diverse cultural aspirations of all communities. Educating young people during their formative years with a partial view of any subject should be avoided where possible as we are only too aware in this province of the misunderstandings that can arise.
That is not to say that Ulster Scots literature, culture and language should not have a rightful place in the mainstream curriculum. It should and will enrich the experience of all pupils who learn about it. Everyone is entitled to know the influences which shaped them and their communities but to learn those to the exclusion of other influences would be a mistake.

At a time when all essential budgets are under strain, it would seem strange that a further education sector may emerge in spite of compelling evidence that shared education, not further diversification, is the way forward.

Belfast Telegraph

Caitriona Ruane faces challenge over bus fund decision

April 14, 2011

Education Minister Caitriona Ruane is facing a High Court challenge over the refusal to fund a bus service to Northern Ireland’s only post-primary Irish language school.

The board of governors at Colaiste Feirste in west Belfast is seeking a judicial review of her department’s decision not to financially back a pilot transport scheme for pupils coming from Downpatrick, Co Down.  A judge was told the service would encourage more children to attend and help increase the use of Irish language.  Michael Lavery QC, appearing for the school’s vice-chairperson, Colma McKee, said: “The more children that we can get to be educated through the medium of Irish the more you are achieving the objective of the Good Friday Agreement and the statute.” The decision not to fund the service for 11 pupils who travel from Downpatrick to Colaiste Feirste was taken last September on the basis of an economic assessment.

Belfast Telegraph

Ruane: Teach Irish in every Northern Ireland school

March 21, 2011

Education Minister Caitriona Ruane has caused fury after claiming that every school pupil in Northern Ireland should be given the opportunity to learn the Irish language.

In an outspoken interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the controversial minister also claimed that she wanted the local schools system brought closer together with that in the Republic – which would mean the scrapping of GCSE and A-level exams.  And in remarks that will anger thousands of parents whose children are caught up in the confusion of the unregulated testing system for entrance to secondary schools, Ms Ruane declared that “the debate on academic selection is now over”. In 2009 the Belfast Telegraph launched its Sit Down, Sort It Out campaign which appealed for the Executive to put their differences aside to reach an agreed solution over transfer. This followed the decision to scrap the 11-plus without any agreed and regulated system of transferring between primary and secondary schools put in its place.

But far from showing any contrition over the uncertainty which surrounds the transfer process, Ms Ruane instead claimed that ending the 11-plus was her “proudest achievement”. Ms Ruane also blamed the grammar system for the high level of Northern Ireland pupils leaving education without basic qualifications – remarks which are sure to poison the relationship between schools and the minister even further. The minister told the Belfast Telegraph: “Well, first of all, the old system has gone and one of my proudest achievements is ending the 11-plus. The breakaway tests operated by the grammar schools should not be happening, they should not be doing those tests and they should not be placing barriers in front of children to prevent them from getting into their schools. “What I would say to the schools is stop doing it. What I would say to the parents is tell the grammar schools that they should not be erecting barriers for their children to have to climb over.” Ms Ruane also indicated that she would like to remain as Education Minister after the May election and set out some of her priorities in a new Assembly term.

She said: “I would like to see the option to learn Irish. I do think we are moving to a situation in our society where more young people from the Protestant community will be learning Irish.” Some controlled schools, which mainly serve the Protestant community, already offer Irish as part of the curriculum.  She continued: “Obviously I would like our system harmonised across the island because I think there are benefits for us and we should remove all obstacles through mobility.  “Leaving Certificate pupils in the Republic study six core subjects for two years but have the option to take up to eight, with six counting towards university entrance.  “Junior Cert and GCSE are very similar, post Junior Cert and post GCSE we have big differences. When you start your Leaving Cert cycle this is where I think the Southern system is better than the system here in the North.” Although Ms Ruane’s reign as Education Minister has been controversial and provoked severe criticism at times, she has no regrets, makes no apologies and would relish the opportunity to continue in the post despite the major budgetary challenges facing education.

“I would love us (Sinn Fein) to choose Education again but that will be a discussion for our party and then among the various parties. I’d love to be (Education Minister) and I would love to continue the reforms in education,” she said.  One of her greatest achievements, she said, has been bringing “about one of the most progressive and radical reforms of education since the Partition of Ireland”, which included axing the 11-plus.  “The system I inherited when I came in here in May 2007 was a system designed for the 1940s. We have had to dismantle that system, it was passed its sell-by date, if ever it was the system that should have been in place, and that’s basically what we did brick by brick. We have created a new system of education.  “The academic selection debate is over. The direction of travel is now moving towards a flexible, modern education system in terms of how our children transfer from primary to post primary, but even more importantly, how our children learn in post-primary.” And she warned those who were continuing to resist the reforms that their efforts were pointless.  “Change has happened, it is happening and further change will happen,” she stated.  “The Catholic sector in its entirety is moving away from selection. In the Irish medium sector there is no selection and in the integrated sector, by and large, selection is not operating.”

However, the Education Minister has conceded that grammar schools in the controlled sector continue to ignore her decision |to scrap academic selection by |offering what she calls breakaway tests (AQE and GL) to determine admission.  She has also laid the blame for poor literacy and numeracy skills and the 9,588 teenagers in Northern Ireland who leave school every year without attaining five GCSEs at the door of grammar schools, who admit pupils based on academic selection.  She claimed: “What they are going to do is contribute to the entrenchment of disadvantage and the number of young people who are leaving school without proper qualifications. They need to take responsibility.  “It is not good enough for them to sit by and say ‘we are doing well in our school’ and watch while young people are failed by an outdated system.” Accepting no responsibility for the thousands of young people who are failed by the education system, Ms Ruane said: “I attribute it to the very unequal system we had in the past. Our curriculum was totally and utterly distorted by the 11-plus and one of the biggest successes of the last four years has been to bring in the revised curriculum and to support principals, teachers, unions who were opposed to the distortion of the curriculum.”

It is widely believed that Sinn Fein will not retain Education following the Assembly elections but Ms Ruane has no concerns about a new unionist minister overturning many of her decisions. She said: “It will be very difficult for them to do that. First of all Sinn Fein will not be supporting the reintroduction of the 11-plus, and you need cross-community support in the Assembly to bring in regulations.”

Belfast Telegraph – Lindsay Fergus

« Previous Page