I am satisfied that the new criteria for Irish exemptions as set out in Circulars 0052/2019 (primary) and 0053/2019 (post-primary) do not in any way downgrade Irish as a taught subject in schools.
The new Circulars are underpinned by a review of the policy and practice in relation to exemptions which was carried out by my Department’s Inspectorate in the context of Irish and English being core subjects and in light of the educational policy and social developments that have taken place since the previous circulars were issued.
A public consultation process was held on the draft circulars and an unprecedented response was received (11,000+ responses). The responses were very carefully considered and the report of the consultation process, which is available on my Department’s website, indicates broad support for the changes proposed. The final circulars, which I approved, are being implemented in recognised schools since September 2019 and will be subject to review following two years of implementation.
Far from the downgrading of Irish, I believe the Circulars support the study of Irish. An exemption may now be granted only in exceptional circumstances as defined in terms of very clear criteria. There is no provision for an exemption to be granted other than in these circumstances thus supporting consistency and a non-discretionary approach. The circulars apply only to English-medium settings thus supporting the Irish language ethos of Irish-medium settings.
Furthermore the circulars are underpinned by the principle of inclusion, recognising a wide diversity of needs which are provided for in the new Primary Language Curriculum/Curaclam Teanga na Bunscoile and in the Junior Cycle specifications for Irish supporting a differentiated learning experience for pupils and students in an inclusive school environment. The circulars also restate the importance of language learning and bilingualism and emphasise the curricular frameworks which help teachers to identify a pupil’s stage of language development and plan interventions that support the development of language skills and competences.