I thank the Chairman for the invitation to discuss educational supports for children whose first language is not English. As requested in the letter from the clerk to the committee, I will give a brief presentation on the general issues as they relate to the Department of Education and Science. I understand my colleagues from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment will give a separate presentation.
By way of background, all children who reside in Ireland, including the children of refugees and migrant workers, are entitled to avail of primary and post-primary education, regardless of their status. Attendance at school is compulsory for children aged from six to 16 years under the Education (Welfare) Act 2000. Schools are obliged to enrol any child in respect of whom an application for admission has been made, except where a refusal is in accordance with the admissions policy published by the school under section 15 of the Education Act 1998. The admissions policy of a school cannot discriminate on grounds of nationality or legal status. In the event of a person being refused admission to a school, an appeal under section 29 may be made to the Department.
The Department estimates that there are in excess of 28,000 students in schools at primary and post-primary level who do not have English as a first language. These children share many characteristics with pupils whose mother tongue is English and many of their learning needs are similar to those of Irish children. However, they also have distinct and specific needs because they are learning in and through a language which is not their own and, in some cases, come from cultural backgrounds and communities with different understandings and expectations of the education system.
To meet the language needs of this group of children the Department provides additional support to schools. This can take the form of financial assistance, additional teaching posts or portions of posts. These additional teachers are provided over and above the normal quota for schools and are used by the schools solely for the purpose of providing extra English language tuition for newcomer children who do not have English as a first language. They are intended to assist children with English language deficits, particularly at the initial stages of language acquisition, and to supplement the work of the mainstream classroom teacher. It is important to keep in mind also that newcomer children are also counted with all other children enrolled at the school for the purpose of appointing mainstream classroom teachers. In effect, there are two sources of support; the mainstream classroom teacher and the language support teacher.
Language is best learned in a naturalistic setting through experience of real life situations. That is how we all learn language. Consequently, meeting the learning and teaching needs of pupils whose first language is not English has to be very much a whole-school responsibility. The Department encourages schools to adopt an inclusive ethos where diversity is valued. Language support teaching is provided through a range of teaching methods that include withdrawal of pupils individually or in groups for short periods, in-class support from the main classroom teacher, a combination of both withdrawal and in-class support or, in certain limited circumstances, particularly for older students at post-primary level, withdrawal for more intensive language tuition.
School management can decide at local level on the structure of the support that is best suited to the needs of each school, but the use of the resources provided must focus on the language needs of the non-English speaking children, allowing them full access to the mainstream curriculum in as short a time as possible. The goal is to ensure they reach a standard where they can integrate with normal curricular provision.
There is flexibility for schools in deciding the way in which to structure language support. The majority of schools operate a system whereby small groups of non-English speaking children are withdrawn from mainstream class during the normal school day for a number of hours per week. They are then returned to the mainstream classroom setting. In general, newcomer children are placed in age appropriate classes, unless their standard of English language is so low as to prevent them from successfully following the curriculum of their peer group. In this case, school authorities may place them in classes one level or one year below.
I should emphasise language resource teachers are not intended to facilitate the creation of a parallel system of instruction for non-English speaking children which could lead to their withdrawal from the mainstream classes for prolonged periods of time throughout the school year. Such an approach would not be desirable on educational grounds and would be a barrier to the proper integration of the children into the whole-school setting and a general barrier to proper integration into wider Irish society. Our goal is integration into society.
As a consequence, the Department would not consider it prudent or necessary to apply a simple mathematical formula of one language resource teacher for every 14 pupils, regardless of the total number of pupils in the school. This is not the approach adopted internationally. Neither, I hasten to add, do we consider a limit of two teachers applied across the board to be appropriate, in view of the numbers of children entering the education system in recent times. The limit was conceived at a time when the levels of inward migration to Ireland was not foreseen. Under the previous arrangements, schools with 14 or more newcomer pupils, who did not have English as a first language and who were eligible for language support because they fell below a certain proficiency level, were allowed to appoint a language support teacher. A second teacher was appointed when the numbers reached 28 and generally, no further appointments were made beyond that.
Following the establishment of an internal steering committee to co-ordinate the Department's response to issues relating to newcomers, which I chair, we decided to examine the question of language support in some detail. This examination included consultation with management and union bodies, visits to schools with large numbers of newcomers, which I found to be particularly enlightening, discussions with the Reception and Integration Agency of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and visits to direct provision centres for asylum seekers in Mosney and Cork. Ms Ring, who is with our delegation here today, and I also visited the Ministry of Education in Latvia to get the perspective from that side and to see at first hand the school system in Riga. We were especially interested in the provision made for the English language within the Latvian school system. We found all of this to be extremely useful in developing our thinking in this area.
During September of 2006, the limit of two teachers was effectively lifted as the Department allowed schools with large numbers of pupils whose first language was not English to appoint a third teacher. The committee will be aware the Minister recently announced she would approve the allocation of 200 extra language resource teachers to bring the number solely teaching English to newcomer children to 1,450 in the current school year. These extra teachers will be in place in the coming weeks in schools that have been identified with the largest numbers of newcomer children needing English language support. The additional 200 teachers are part of the Government's commitment in Towards 2016 to provide an extra 550 language support teachers by 2009 and to reform the limit of two teachers per school. It is intended a further 350 language support teachers will be provided between 2008 and 2009. That will be for the 2007 to 2008 school year and the 2008 to 2009 school year.
These new resources are intended for schools with large numbers of pupils who do not have English as a first language. Depending on the number of eligible pupils enrolled, this means schools which previously were limited to a maximum of two language resource teachers may now have up to six language support teachers. The 200 posts are being allocated with immediate effect and the authorities of the schools concerned are being given approval by the Department of Education and Science to proceed with the appointments.
Children are assessed for ability and must demonstrate a level below the threshold of proficiency. To illustrate by way of example, a primary school with an enrolment of 70 eligible pupils needing language support would, under the previous system, be entitled to two teachers but under the revised system will be entitled to four teachers. To ensure schools can accurately and objectively assess the language requirement of children, the Department of Education and Science will also send assessment materials to schools that have been developed by Integrate Ireland Language and Training, IILT, which is based in Trinity College Dublin. The materials developed by IILT conform to best international practice and have already been successfully tested on a pilot basis in 98 primary schools involving 553 language support pupils. The assessment materials will enable schools to ensure the specific language requirements of children needing support are met in a targeted way.
Under current arrangements, the additional language support to an individual pupil is generally given for a period of two years. Children who have been given two years of additional tuition in English by a language support teacher should, in normal circumstances, have sufficient competency in the language to be able to engage with the curriculum at the same level as their English-speaking peers. However, it is accepted children have different levels of language and different levels of aptitude for language learning. The IILT materials will also enable accurate initial and ongoing assessment of the language proficiency of the child and his or her need for continued language support. Dr. Barbara Simpson of the IILT is with us here today and if Deputies wish for more information on this, she will be happy to oblige.
At primary level, all language support teachers are qualified teachers who have undertaken programmes in the colleges of education which contain a number of elements aimed at enabling student teachers to address the various needs of all pupils in the classroom, including students whose first language is not English. Initial teacher education for post-primary teachers, either H.Dip or teaching degree, does not specifically deal with the teaching of students whose first language is not English. However, a number of universities and colleges have programmes that cover the challenges of teaching students whose first language is not English within the context of developing awareness among student teachers of intercultural issues they may face in the classroom.
Specifically, at primary teacher training, all students undertake a course that prepares them to teach English in accordance with the revised primary school curriculum which was introduced in 2000. Two modules of this course are taken in each year of the B. Ed. course and it includes the teaching of English as an additional language for students. Student teachers are also given an awareness of intercultural issues including the challenges of teaching students whose first language is not English. This is done in the context of teaching language skills and in the teaching of reading. I will leave it to my colleagues in the NCCA to develop this issue in further detail.
In addition, the colleges of education address in a variety of ways the specific issues involved in the teaching of students whose first language is not English. These include intercultural education, language acquisition and specialised courses in second language teaching. A number of colleges provide specific elective elements of their courses which either focus on teaching English as a second language, as in St. Patrick's College or concentrate on the issues relating to teaching students whose first language is not English, which is the approach taken at the Marino Institute of Education and Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.
Specific training is not provided at pre-service level to either teachers at primary level — colleges of education — or post-primary level — education departments of universities or colleges in respect of degrees or higher diplomas — regarding the challenges of teaching children whose first language is not English. However, student teachers are made aware of intercultural issues, including the challenges of teaching students whose first language is not English.
As with primary initial teacher education, elective elements of programmes are provided on special needs and learning supports that cover students whose first language is not English. For post-primary teachers studying languages, working with students whose first language is not English is covered in the context of teaching the language itself. For example, the combined postgraduate qualification in special education includes a module on inclusive education which covers the issues raised in regard to newcomer students.
It should be noted that all language support teachers are qualified post-primary teachers who have gained skills in teaching methodologies and pedagogies within a number of different classroom contexts. This training helps these teachers when working with students whose first language is not English.
That concludes our presentation. My colleagues and I will be glad to respond to any questions the committee members may have.