€5,000 a year 'best kept secret'
More scholarships for mainland pupils is one recommendation of a report on island schools, writes Katherine Donnelly
Bríd Ní Dhonnacha describes it as one of Ireland's best kept secrets, but it is one that she loves to share.
The principal of Coláiste Ghobnait, Inis Oirr, is talking about €5,000 a year scholarships that support students from around the country, to attend an all-Irish island post-primary school. The scheme funds 30 pupils, for a year at a time, in any of five offshore second-level schools. In reality, the scholarships tend to be shared between the three Aran Islands.
It's a win-win: students who cut the umbilical cord with home learn a lot of Irish and develop independent living skills and an appreciation of Irish culture and heritage, and, in turn, boost enrolments in schools that would otherwise struggle to survive.
The last census pointed to a continuing fall in the population of all the inhabited offshore islands - from 9,029 in 2011 to 8,756 in 2016. It is an ageing population with a noticeable rise in the 55-plus age group, but a drop in the number of children.
As well as five island post-primary schools, there are 12 offshore primary schools. The challenges facing this dwindling cohort was the subject of a hearing by the Oireachtas Education Committee in December, followed by a report.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, who acted as committee rapporteur says the schools play a crucial role in maintaining the fabric of their communities and are essential to maintaining the sustainability of the islands "which are a very important part of our rich heritage and culture, and an important asset for us as a nation."
He says the challenges facing the schools are specific and unique. The committee's view is that they need positive State discrimination and that the provision of supports that would make a big difference would not involve significant outlay.
A doubling of the number of scholarships to 60 is one of eight recommendations in the report. Others include more teachers, incentives to attract teachers to the islands and awarding of the Department of Education's DEIS status for schools in disadvantaged communities.
The committee is also seeking additional funding of €20,000 a year for each of the post-primary schools to cover the extra expenses they endure, such as cargo costs.
For island pupils, an away football match involves a boat journey as well as dealing with the vagaries of the weather. According to Bríd Ní Dhonnacha: "Sometimes a student might leave and not be back until midday the following day. You are talking about an overnight."
The scholarships are funded by the Department of the Gaeltacht and Ní Dhonnacha says they make a huge difference. In the current year only 11 of her 27 students are from Inis Oirr. The island primary school has about 33 pupils in all, so it alone cannot provide the numbers to sustain Coláiste Ghobnait. Other Coláiste Ghobnait pupils are from Gaeltacht areas on the mainland, too far from a school where they would get an education through Irish.
Ní Dhonnacha publicises the scholarship scheme by sending emails to primary schools, but says word of mouth is the most effective form of communication.
The recipients tend to come from Dublin and western counties such as Roscommon, Mayo and Sligo, but also Munster.
She says demand is increasing and she could fill more places if the scheme was extended. There is a noticeable trend of pupils initially coming for one year, but then wanting to return. "We have a cohort of third years who are looking to stay for the Leaving Certificate," she says.
"The pupils who come benefit in many ways - it is not only about the Irish language. Mum and dad aren't there, and they gain great independence from travelling. They also learn a lot about Irish culture and heritage. They are not only part of the school community, but part of the island community," she adds.
One major bugbear is the lack of a ring-fenced policy to support island schools, including that they are not necessarily officially regarded as 'small schools'. Nor, despite their remote locations, are they covered by DEIS. The standard formula for allocating teachers to schools is based on pupil numbers so, without an adjustment, schools with low enrolments struggle to provide a broad curriculum and the full range of extra-curricular activities.
Tomás Mac Pháidín of Galway Roscommon Education and Training Board (GRETB), says island schools' challenges fall between several stools within the system and that a comprehensive, coordinated national island-education policy is urgently required.