Irish yes, but not always Catholic
The main gaelscoileanna patron body says reconfiguration of the primary school system is not only about religion
There is a lot of talk about making the education system more diverse.
Classrooms are certainly more inclusive but progress on changing the architecture of school patronage to reflect the shift in cultural and religious mores has been slow.
Much of the focus in the debate is on the place of religion in the primary school sector. A situation where 90pc of schools are under the control of the Catholic Church is regarded, even by the church itself, as not a proper reflection of the needs of modern Ireland.
A five-year-old process to divest some of the 2,900 Catholic schools to other patrons has seen no more than 10 change hands. The current education minister, Richard Bruton, has come up with a new word, reconfiguration, and a different process, to try to move it on.
The new approach is not unrelated to the arrival, in recent years, of community national schools, which are run by the education and training boards (ETBs), the successors to the VECs. The Catholic Church certainly seems amenable to them as a patron body to which it would transfer schools, and so does the minister.
Unlike the traditional multi-denominational model - which keeps religion teaching out of the classrooms altogether - community national schools, while providing a general multi-belief programme, also offer faith formation within school time, for those who want it.
Clear battle lines are drawn between Educate Together, which has been the main provider of multi-denominational schools at primary level, and ETBs, which act as patrons of the community national schools. But they are not the only ones in the field, and it is not only a religious war.
Primary school enrolments will peak in the next year or so, which means there will be very few new schools in the foreseeable future. So, a shakeout of the Catholic Church-controlled sector provides the main opportunity for patron bodies of all persuasions, religious or otherwise, to grow their presence.
An Foras Pátrúnachta is the patron for most Irish-medium schools in the country. It has some concerns that, in the current debate, its offering is not fully understood and that it may get squeezed if the reshaping of Irish primary education is seen purely through the lens of religious ethos.
Its general secretary, Caoimhín Ó hEaghra, says the issue to be confronted is not only religion but also the medium of instruction. But, if it is about religious ethos, he wants it known that he can offer all options.
An Foras Pátrúnachta's main mission is the provision of Irish-medium schools; it is flexible on the issue of spiritual ethos, responding to local needs. Its first school, in 1993, was multi-denominational and it also has schools that are denominational (Catholic) and inter-denominational (Catholic and Protestant). So, it has ticked all the traditional boxes in terms of religion.
Now there is a another option - the one offered by community national schools, a hybrid of sorts between denominational and multi-denominational.
Last month, Ó hEaghra wrote to Richard Bruton to let him know that An Foras Pátrúnachta was adding this choice to its offering and asking him to spread the word to relevant parties.
That is a reference to the surveys to be conducted under the reconfiguration process, by ETBs, to identify towns or areas within their regions there is demand for greater school diversity. (As well as being a patron body for community national schools, the ETBs have been given this central role - to the displeasure of some.) Where demand for change is identified, there will be discussions between individual ETBs and local church interests about possible transfers.
Ó hEaghra says it provides an opportunity not only for Catholic gaelscoileanna to transfer to an Irish-medium patron, but also to establish Irish medium schools in areas where there are none, and provide multi-denominational or inter-belief education through the medium of Irish.
So, what is the demand for Irish-medium education? Ó hEaghra offers an example: Last year, a new school opened on the north side of Dublin city, serving the Marino-Drumcondra-Dublin 1 area, to cater for 450 pupils. This was not to do with divestment or reconfiguration, but a consequence of local birth rates.
Once the Department of Education decides there is sufficient demand for a new school, it invites patrons to apply, and to back up their application with evidence of parental support. In this case, An Foras Pátrúnachta produced 733 names - but almost half were from outside the qualifying area. On the other hand, Educate Together, had 643 parental preferences, 622 of which were valid, and was awarded the patronage.
Ó hEaghra says that even if many of their supporters were outside the official boundary, and many, only slightly, he says it did establish a significant demand in the area for an Irish-medium school that has not been addressed and "there remains no option for a multi-denominational gaelscoil north of the Liffey in Dublin".
He points to a 2015 ESRI study that shows growing interest for Irish-medium education: between 2011 and 2015 there was an increase, from 13pc to 23pc, in parents who said they would consider sending their child to an all-Irish primary school, if one was located near their home. Some 4.7pc of primary schools are gaelscoileanna.
An Foras Pátrúnachta is patron to 65 primary schools and four second-level schools, with two more on the way. Ó hEaghra says that where it does establish schools at both levels the "results are formidable".
In Kildare, it has four primary schools and one second-level. The 2011 census showed that 83,526 people in the county could speak Irish, compared with 73,373 in 2006. Ó hEaghra says they "attribute this growth directly to the success of our schools and their efforts to promote and foster an Irish speaking community in their areas. In addition to their children, parents are often motivated to re-learn Irish along with their children".
He says that one-in-four of their schools is multi-denominational, and that the make up of their schools generally reflect the local community.
Gaelscoileanna often face charges of being elitist and allegedly only interested in children whose parents are fluent in Irish. He counters that with the results of an An Foras Pátrúnachta study, conducted in January and February, which shows that 9.6pc of its pupils are "new Irish", compared with a national average of 10.4pc. Almost half of its schools have a higher rate of "new Irish" than the national average and, in one school, in Co Cavan, 28pc of pupils are "new Irish".
Notwithstanding this, he says they face challenges getting their message across: "We are working to encourage more 'new Irish' to attend our schools. Many families are not aware of how their child's home language/or development of English is actually enhanced by the immersion education model and that the distinctive ethos can vary from gaelscoil to gaelscoil."
Gaeilgeoirí - and proud of it
The rapid expansion of Balbriggan in north county Dublin in the past decade has also seen it transform into a town with one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the country.
Among its primary schools is Gaelscoil Bhaile Brigín, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
The gaelscoil opened with 35 pupils in 2006, and now it is full to capacity with 485, including many from "new Irish" families. In some cases, one, or both, parents come from a non-Irish background. In the past two years, the school has opened two special classes for pupils with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD).
Principal Clodagh Ní Mhaoilchiaráin says the different ethnic background of the pupils is not an issue when it comes to education through the medium of Irish, either for the children or their parents. She says children have no difficulty, including those with special educational needs: "It doesn't matter what the child's background is. It is shown internationally, and nationally, that learning through a second language is hugely beneficial to all children."
On the question of the proficiency in levels in Irish of parents, she says that while "people might say that it could be difficult for them, they would attest that it is not as big a worry as it may appear before their children start in the school. There are plenty of supports".