One recurring feature of the annually published feeder schools data set is the consistently high proportion of Irish-language schools that rank prominently at the upper end of the tables.
The top mixed feeder school table shows the greatest representation of Irish-medium schools, highlighting perhaps a dual benefit of mixed education and Irish-medium education.
Of the 28 schools listed, 10, or more than a third, teach through the medium of Irish. Of the top 10 schools listed, five are private fee-paying English-medium schools, just one is a non-fee paying English-medium school, and four are Irish-medium schools.
Gaelcholáiste na Mara (An tInbhear Mór) tops the list, while Coláiste Íosagáin and Coláiste Eoin (An Charraig Dhubh) and Coláiste Pobal Osraí (Cill Chainnigh) also feature in the top 10 listed schools. Coláiste Chillian (Cluain Dolcáin), Meánscoil San Nioclás (Dún Garbhán), Gaelcholáiste Cheatharlach, Gaelcholáiste Phort Láirge, Gaelcholáiste Chiarraí and Coláiste Choilm (Baile an Chollaigh) also feature on the table.
Provision remains one of the biggest barriers to secondary-level Irish-medium education - out of 728 post-primary schools in Ireland, only 50 are Gaelcholáistí. Seven counties have no Irish-medium post-primary school provision at all and it should therefore be no surprise that only a third (1,688) of the 4,723 pupils in sixth class in Gaelscoileanna in June 2020 transitioned to a Gaelcholáiste, while the majority enrolled in English-medium schools.
While schools located in more affluent areas will have a similar social class profile to their neighbouring fee-paying schools, it is worth noting that limited availability of second-level Irish-medium schools means many students travel long distances to attend a Gaelcholáiste and will not always fit neatly into that social cohort.
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So why do parents and students choose Irish-medium secondary education? Many schools were founded with the goal of preserving and promoting the Irish language and that cultural aspect is a motivating factor for many. Research also shows that the benefits of bilingual education can include improved cognitive, linguistic and problem-solving skills as well as better academic performance.
Employment opportunities are increasingly available for those with Irish in the public and private sectors, across the areas of business, culture and heritage, media, translation and education.
The Irish language achieved full parity with the European Union’s 23 official languages at the turn of the year, leading to new career opportunities for graduates interested in working with the language. There are currently some 200 people working in various roles in the EU where Irish is their working language.
Investment in TG4 has also led to the development of a vibrant Irish language audio-visual industry. The ongoing success of Irish language films such as An Cailín Ciúin and Arracht highlights the potential offered by Irish language cinema.
Employment opportunities are also expected to increase in the public sector as legislation introduced in July requires that some 20 per cent of new recruits to the public service will have to be proficient in Irish by 2030.
However, the Irish-medium education sector is not without its problems.
The provision of Irish-medium schools has long been left up to campaign groups, parent bodies and language activists.
Research by the ESRI indicates the level of demand for Irish medium education is about 23 per cent yet Irish-medium primary schools only account for 8.1 per cent (252 out of 3,104) of the country’s primary schools while just 3.6 per cent of the country’s second-level schools are Irish-medium.
Parents and campaigners hope that a dedicated policy on Irish language education, currently open for public consultation, will put in place the mechanisms required to ensure the provision of Irish-medium education at all levels across the country.