Compulsory Irish rule overhauled in schools
Key changes in rules around granting Irish exemptions for school pupils are being rolled out for the new school year.
In one key reform, pupils with a learning difficulty, such as dyslexia, will no longer need a psychological assessment to support an application to drop the subject.
That will remove a significant financial burden on parents, many of whom traditionally have paid €600 or more for a private assessment.
The dropping of the requirement for an assessment is a game-changer. But schools will still have to apply strict criteria when considering an application for an exemption.
Education Minister Joe McHugh announced the new regime following a review of the existing scheme, which dates back to the 1990s, and a public consultation process.
He said it was “long overdue” and would make the system “fairer and more supportive of students, while at the same time ensuring that all children have equal access to study the Irish language”.
According to the Department of Education, students will be granted an exemption from the study of Irish only in rare and exceptional circumstances.
While Irish is a compulsory subject, pupils may seek an opt-out on the basis of a special educational need or if much of a child's primary education has been in another country.
In 2016, just under 1pc of primary pupils (5,358) and a little over 9pc of post-primary pupils (32,483) were exempted from studying Irish.
Exemptions peak when students are approaching State exams, although many of those students study and sit exams in foreign languages.
Research has highlighted difficulties experienced by principals in interpreting and implementing the rules, leading to confusion and a lack of consistency. The new regime is intended to bring greater clarity.
The department will send a circular to schools in the coming weeks detailing the new rules, with the elimination of the requirement for a psychological assessment being one of the significant reforms.
:: The new criteria will only apply in English-medium schools and exemptions will not be allowed for pupils in Irish-medium schools, an anomaly in current arrangements;
:: Students in special schools or special classes attached to mainstream schools will not be required to apply for an exemption;
:: An application for an exemption on age-related grounds may be sought only if a child has had most of their primary education outside the country up to the age of 12, instead of 11 under existing arrangements.
Mr McHugh said the decision to grant an exemption from the study of Irish should not be taken lightly.
"It is an important decision that will have implications for the student's future learning. The benefits of bilingualism and studying a language from a young age are becoming better understood with studies showing it helps mental agility, makes it easier to learn a third or more languages and that it can help support a child's academic achievement in other subjects like mathematics," he said.
In relation to pupils with significant learning difficulties, a number of criteria will apply, including that the child must have reached second class at least, and the difficulties must be significant and persistent despite efforts already made in school, over time, to address them.
At the time of the application the child must also be at or below the lowest 10pc of their age group in reading, reading comprehension or spelling scores in a standardised test, which can be conducted in school.
A child's IQ will no longer be relevant.
The National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) conducts psychological assessments but it cannot cater for the demand and the alternative for parents was to pay for it, but that could cost €600 or more.
Another change sees the introduction of an appeals mechanism which will allow parents to challenge a school's refusal to grant an exemption.
The Department of Education has committed to reviewing the operation of the changes in two years.
Engagement with the public on the changes attracted huge interest with more than 11,000 individuals responding to a survey, along with written submissions.
The department also held meetings with the Irish language organisation Foras na Gaeilge and the Dyslexia Association of Ireland.