Over the last decade the devolved government in Wales, with near cross-party unanimity, has used its growing powers over education to encourage Welsh-medium education by facilitating the growth of existing and new Welsh-speaking schools across the country. In 2013 nearly 24% of primary and 21% of secondary age students attended Welsh-medium schools, a rise from 19% and 18% in 2003. This linguistic strategy has been followed alongside the 1990s’ addition of the teaching of Welsh as an obligatory second language for all English-medium students up to the age of 16. The education policies followed in Wales emulate successful schemes practised elsewhere in multilingual Europe with regions like Catalonia, the Basque Country and Flanders all encouraging education through their vernacular tongues. In Ireland, an island nation independent since the 1920s and where Irish is the country’s sole national and first official language, less than 8% of primary students and 5% of secondary are educated through Irish with 90%+ of pupils attending English-medium schools (where Irish is relegated to being an obligatory subject amongst many others). Yet, as in Wales or Catalonia, those who do pass through minority language education consistently outperform those who do not do so. From a report by School Days:
“The Sunday Times published its annual ‘Schools Guide’ last weekend. The guide lists the top 400 secondary schools in Ireland ranked by the average proportion of pupils gaining places… at the main universities, teacher training colleges, Royal College of Surgeons and NCAD.
…there are just 36 Gaelcholáistí in the Republic but 28 of them are in the Sunday Times top 400. So while they represent just 5% of the 721 secondary-level schools in the country they take up 7% of the Sunday Times Report top 400, 18% of their top 50 and 30% of their top 10.”
Despite their successes in overcoming the indifference of the Irish state and a lack of resources or facilities (many gaelscoileanna make use of glorified wooden huts to accommodate classes and my own local school took twenty years of lobbying with the antipathetic Department of Education before it was moved from “temporary” shacks in a field to an actual bricks-and-mortar building) Irish-medium schools continue to be subject to hostility by the popular Anglophone media in Ireland. Much of what is written, said or claimed is simply discriminatory and in any other context those making such statements would be subject to prosecution for inciting hatred of a minority community. With recent surveys showing that 25% of parents would opt to send their children to Irish-medium schools if available it is clear that the demand for a plurality in education is there. Unfortunately we have a long way to progress before we catch up with the linguistic rights enjoyed by our European peers.