Irish-medium Education and the Costello Report


1.1Background and terms of reference

01Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta (CnaG) commissioned this study in March 2004 to assist its analysis of the Costello Report and inform its response to the implications of the decision in January 2004 of the then Minister for Education, Jane Kennedy, to accept the recommendations of the report.

02The overall aims of the study have been to:

  • assess the implications of the Costello report recommendations for the Irish-medium (IM) sector
  • suggest / recommend a range of solutions which will address the issue of access to the legal entitlement envisaged in the Costello Report
  • suggest / recommend a range of solutions which will address the issue of the collaborative structures envisaged
  • suggest structures and models of IM provision and realistic targets within achievable models and time frames which will allow for the continued development of a vibrant IM post-primary sector that meets the linguistic needs of children in IM schools and that will contribute to the creation of Irish–speaking communities in Northern Ireland.

03Additionally the study includes comment on shortages in skills and resources within the sector, contains related recommendations and refers to the potential value of models of immersion education in other countries to the current and further developments of the IM sector.

04The study has been carried out in close collaboration with CnaG and with the generous support in expertise and time of a wide range of people in education within and providing services to the IM sector.

1.2Outcomes of the Study

05This report represents the main output from the study and is intended to provide CnaG with a focused view of the independent findings and opinions of its author. Additionally the author has provided and is willing to provide more detailed insight into his findings and opinions, in discussion with officers of CnaG.

2The Context of the Study

2.1Growth and Development in IM Education in Northern Ireland

06The development of IM education from its inception some 30 years ago is impressive in its vision, commitment, vitality and achievement. The most extensive provision is in the pre-school and primary sectors with some 37 pre-school centres and 28 primary schools. Provision of IM post-primary education, although smaller, has, nonetheless, seen significant growth and standa at 481 in 2003/4. That growth is even more impressive given the competition for pupils in the post-primary sector, competition intensified in the context of a decline in the school population over in recent years, open enrolment and the continuing influence on parental choice of the selective system of English-medium education (EME).

2.2Milestones in Provision

07Many significant decisions and actions have contributed to the growth of IM education. These include (in no particular order):

  • the commitment of the parents who founded the first IM school in Northern Ireland
  • the recognition by Government that education through the medium of Irish was valid and where appropriate could attract financial support
  • the provision of the Transfer Procedure test in Irish by the Department of Education (DE)
  • the introduction of broadcast materials for schools in Irish by the BBC
  • the provision of a range of GCSE and A-level subjects in Irish by the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA)
  • the establishment of Meánscoil Feirste in Belfast for second-level pupils
  • the establishment of Iontaobhas Ultach and Gaeloiliúint
  • the establishment of an tÁisaonad Lán-Ghaeilge
  • the introduction of initial teacher training courses for those intending to work in IM schools
  • the commitments in the Belfast Agreement
  • the establishment of CnaG and the IM Trust.

2.3The Education Policy Context

08CnaG came into being not only at a time of major political development but also at a time when education policy was undergoing extensive change, and delivery of the service was subject to extensive development. In the year 2000, some 10 years on from the Education Reform NI Order 1989 and subsequent legislative changes, the arrangements for funding schools were also undergoing change. The Northern Ireland Curriculum (NIC) was under review, qualifications and assessment arrangements were being changed substantially and major development was under way in relation to pastoral care and child protection.

09A new emphasis on the development of skills for life and work was prompting a range of employment-related learning initiatives. Concurrently, policy and provision for pre-school education and for children with special educational needs were being strengthened. Pressure was growing for a root and branch review of post-primary provision, not least because of increasing concern about the effects of the Transfer Tests on children and on their primary education.

10The decision of the then Minister of Education, Martin McGuinness, in September 2000 to commission a review of post-primary education led to the publication of the Burns report in 2002. The main recommendations of the Burns Review Group which, inter alia, proposed the abolition of selection for post-primary education in favour of election, informed by pupil profiles and partnership between schools, are given in Appendix 1 There followed perhaps the most extensive public consultation on educational provision ever conducted in Northern Ireland and this revealed broad support for many of the recommendations but not for the proposals on transfer and the establishment of clusters of schools / collegiates.

11In 2003, the then Minister of Education, Jane Kennedy, commissioned further advice on the Transfer Tests and the way forward from a working group chaired by Steve Costello. The Ministerial statement outlining her acceptance of the advice of the working group and a summary of its recommendations are included as Appendices 2 and 3. It is the implications of the Minister’s decision for IME with which this paper is directly concerned.

2.4Linking the IM sector into wider educational developments

12The vision of CnaG and its strategy for development for the IM sector are clear and well established. Progress towards the realisation of the vision continues as the Comhairle works with and through agencies, both statutory and voluntary, to ensure ever greater convergence in their strategy and commitment both to IM education and the wider goal of creating an Irish language community.

13The way forward in education reform makes it ever more important for the Comhairle:

  • to identify and promote ways and means of linking the IM sector into wider educational development
  • be part of the wider planning for and implementation of change and
  • ensure that pupils, teachers, parents and governors have a sense of ownership of system-wide changes which have the potential to improve education for all.

3Irish-medium Post Primary Education: its current Extent and Characteristics.

14Irish medium Education (IME) was introduced in 1971when Bunscoil Phobal Feirste opened in west Belfast. Since then there has been a steady growth in enrolment in IM schools across Northern Ireland and in some areas the growth has been fast. The IM schools data-base 2003-2004 shows that there are now some 69 IM schools and 3,429 pupils being educated through immersion education in Irish.

These numbers include

  • 38 nursery schools with 831 children
  • 28 primary schools with 2117 children
  • 3 post-primary schools with 481 children

15From the above figures it is obvious that the prospect of further growth in enrolments in both the primary and post-primary schools is good, even in the context of a general decline in the numbers of children of school age in the population in Northern Ireland.

16The numbers of professional staff in the IM sector are also growing steadily, although there is continuing difficulty in recruiting specialist mathematics, science and technology teachers who are fluent in Irish. In 2003-2004 there are

  • 2 teachers, 42 supervisors and 78 assistants in the nursery sector
  • 125 teachers in the primary sector
  • 47 teachers in the post-primary sector

17Irish-medium schools have been established in a range of management types: there are independent, fully funded schools, schools under the management of the Catholic Council for Maintained Schools (CCMS) and a small number of independent schools not in receipt of funding from DE because they have not yet reached the viability threshold which triggers grant aid.

18A development proposal has been approved for a controlled IM school in the Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB) area.

19The three IM post-primary schools are established as follows:

  • Meánscoil Feirste: an independent, fully funded school. The current enrolment stands at 406 pupils in the 11-18 age range and the DE has approved an enrolment of 600 in total
  • St Brigid’s: a single language unit within an English-Medium (EM) school under the management of CCMS. Currently there are 49 pupils in the 11-16 age range.
  • St Catherine’s: a dual language unit within an EM school under the management of CCMS. Currently there are 26 pupils in years 8 and 9, the unit having been established in September 2002.

20The NIC is offered in each school. The two schools which have pupils at KS4 offer a range of GCSE subjects, and in Meánscoil Feirste, some 12 subjects are offered post-16. Neither of these schools is yet able to offer a range of vocational courses at either GCSE or post-16 levels.

21Accommodation at Meánscoil Feirste is being improved at present and new buildings capable of accommodating the approved enrolment of 600 pupils are under construction. Negotiations are also in progress to secure playing fields.

22The IM unit at St. Brigid’s is located at a distance from the EM site and has accommodation which includes some old buildings, not designed for school use, and modern temporary buildings. For some subjects the pupils may travel to the main school in order to use specialist facilities. They also have access to the main school’s playing fields.

23St. Catherine’s College has accommodated the pupils in its IM unit in part of the main school and will need additional accommodation as the enrolment in the unit increases.

24IME is entitled to access the services of the statutory education bodies including the Curriculum and Advisory Support Services (CASS) and other specialist services of the Education and Library Boards, (ELBs) CCMS, CCEA, as well the support of Government Departments, in particular DE, the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) and the Department of Culture Arts and leisure (DCAL). The use of the statutory education services by the IM post-primary sector is growing steadily and the range of contacts and support given is widening. It is evident from the contacts made during this study that IME is recognised as one of the partners in the delivery of education in Northern Ireland.

25Additionally, IME is supported by a range of voluntary agencies from which resources, both financial and curricular, are received.

26The 2001 census returns indicated that the Irish language community in Northern Ireland is substantial. Commissioned analysis of the census statistics is providing the Comhairle with indications of where future growth in IME may be more likely to occur. The analysis, amongst many other matters, has identified provisional post-primary catchments. By using a variety of measures, including a recruitment rate based on information from current post-primary school catchments, it is possible to identify up to 8 post-primary catchments and a potential enrolment for the sector of some 1500 children.

27The Comhairle will be using this information to re-focus its strategy for growth and development of post-primary provision. It is clear, as commented on in para 14 above, that there are good grounds for confidence in increasing enrolments in this sector. The increase, if realised, would not only give the sector considerable security and strength in its delivery of IM education but would also increase significantly the potential of the sector for strengthening the Irish language community.

28A range of models of provision for IM post-primary education is considered in section 5 of this report. The potential enrolment in the sector, as suggested by the analysis of the census returns, would not make any of the models redundant, nor would it lessen the need for interdependence between the locations at which IME is delivered.

4The Costello Report

4.1The Costello Working Group’s recommendations, accepted by the Minister on 24 Jan2004, are summarised below.

29The interests of the child should be paramount in post-primary education.

  • The guiding principles for all post-primary education should be equality, quality, relevance, access, choice, respect and partnership.
  • Clear, measurable outcomes for post-primary education should be established in order to secure confidence in the changes proposed, evaluate the effectiveness of the changes and the gains made and highlight areas where change has not had the desired effect. ( see Appendix 4 )
  • An Entitlement Framework should be established to guarantee each pupil, including those with special educational needs (SEN), access to a wide, varied and flexible range of learning pathways together with additional aspects of general learning, careers education and guidance and enrichment opportunities. The minimum at Key Stage 4 (KS4) should be a menu of at least 24 courses of which at least one third must be academic and one third vocational. Within this range, pupils would follow a statutory minimum core (the key skills) and the defined range of areas of study proposed by CCEA, together with careers education and extension and enrichment opportunities. Post-16, the range of opportunities should be wider including at least 27 courses representative of both academic and vocational domains and common requirements akin to those at KS4.
  • Meeting the entitlement would be likely to require school to school and school to FE collaboration. Individual school proposals for achieving the range and choice of the Entitlement Framework should contribute to meeting the overall needs of the area in which the school is located. The type of collaborative arrangements between schools and between schools and Further Education (FE) institutions should be determined locally.
  • Transfer Tests should end and academic selection should cease. Transfer decisions should be based on informed parental and pupil choice. DE should commission work to establish the menu of admission criteria to deal with any over subscription situations. Decisions about learning pathways at age 14 and 16 should be based on informed pupil and parental choice. At age 16 there may be minimum requirements for entry into specific courses.
  • Making it Happen – Delivering the Entitlement Framework
  • Implementation would involve setting up:

Local Planning and Development Partnerships

Area Planning and Development Partnerships

A Strategic Planning and Implementation Group.

  • DE should provide a cohesive and strategic approach to the planning and development of the schools estate, review policies on school funding, open enrolment, school transport and expulsions/powers to direct.

30The implications of each of the above are set out below.

4.2The interests of the child should be paramount

31This commitment should be at the heart of any modern education system irrespective of the age of the pupils. It is clearly central to the mission and the strategy of CnaG and is the foundation for provision in most IM schools. In discussion with the wide range of people whose advice has informed this paper, there was universal acknowledgement of the centrality of the interests of the child. In many of the meetings the point was made that in developing existing and creating new IM provision, whether pre-school, primary or post-primary, the interests of the child should not be compromised in order to achieve other goals. The consensus was that where provision for the whole curriculum, particularly post-14, cannot be made by qualified specialist teachers through Irish, provision of some teaching and learning through English would be necessary in the interests of securing education that is both appropriate to pupil interests and of consistently good quality. Commitment to paramountcy of the interests of the child should be evident in all actions flowing from CnaG’s strategy for IM education.

4.3Guiding Principles

32The guiding principles set for post-primary education are equality, quality, relevance, access, choice, respect and partnership. These relate naturally to the principles set out in the Burns report and which were so universally endorsed during consultation. CnaG embraces these principles, some explicitly, others implicitly, in its mission and strategy. The extent to which they inform planning and decisions needs to be clear in all aspects of the work to establish and develop IM education at all levels. In taking forward the provision of post-primary education, the Comhairle should ensure that these principles are addressed at all levels in the system and should use them as foci for reflection on existing provision and assessment of proposed developments.

4.4Clear, measurable outcomes for post-primary education

33The Costello working group has advocated measurable outcomes (see appendix 4) which would secure confidence in the change process in post-primary education and would support evaluation of the effectiveness of the changes and highlight areas where change has not had the desired effect. CnaG should adopt these outcomes as an evaluation framework for IM post-primary education and should promote them amongst governors, staff and parents in IM schools. This could be done in the context of a communication strategy focused on stakeholders in the sector and could involve briefing and training for governors. CnaG should consult the ELBs and other partners about their plans for responding to this challenge and should seek involvement of governors and staff from IM schools in conferences and courses related to these outcomes.

4.5The Entitlement Framework

34The thrust of the Costello recommendations is that each child, as of right, should have access to a framework of education entitlement. The minimum entitlement is set out in some detail and, in its vision and scope, will present significant challenges and opportunities for all post-primary schools whether IM or EM. It has been estimated that schools with an enrolment of 800 pupils or more will be best placed to deliver the entitlement but even these larger schools will be obliged to link with other schools, FE colleges and Training Organisations in order to provide access to the range of vocational courses which must form one third of the options available at KS 4 and in post-16 provision.

35The focus on essential skills and areas of learning, hitherto inadequately catered for in the context of a long standing knowledge-oriented curriculum, will be challenging to all teachers, and will necessitate developments in the organisation and management of teaching and learning. Many of the changes required which have been piloted in initiatives over the past 5 to 7 years, and the lessons learned, will prove invaluable in planning and delivering the continuing professional development of teachers as they implement the revised curriculum. The roll-out of C2K, the Government’s major investment of new technology to support learning, teaching, assessment, management and administration in all schools is well under way and will be an essential component of the realisation of the Entitlement Framework for all.