Firstly, before I commence my speech, I would like to thank Peadar Ó Cuinneagáin and all the team at Iontaobhas na Gaelscolaíochta for organising this event and for the invitation to be here with you today. It is always a pleasure for me to speak at events like this, about something which is extremely important to me and dear to my heart.
I came here this morning to show my support for the excellent work which is being done throughout the sector. But more importantly, I came here because I draw strength and inspiration from you.
Strength and inspiration from people of conviction, people that can see what is important, and are prepared to give of their time, their imagination, their passion and resourcefulness to the benefit of Irish medium education and to the benefit of the Irish language overall. To make what is good, better. And to make what is better, into world class.
For this initiative, Gaelscolaíocht Éireann is already playing on a world stage. It is an initiative that has received support from the European Union. Not just words, but funding. And that shows that Europerecognises and values the important work being undertaken by Gaelscolaíocht Éireann.
Important work in enhancing the Irish language. Enhancing cross-border cooperation. And enhancing these for a purpose. A purpose I firmly believe in. To support our children, as they learn, develop, achieve and grow into Gaeilgeoirí. Flexible thinkers. Young people that have a language, and talents, and skills. People who provide a good example and inspiration to our neighbours in Europe. And beyond.
Throughout Europe languages are respected and recognised as part of the vast cultural wealth of this part of the world. A wealth that it is our duty and obligation to protect and enhance so our children, here in Ireland, can access one of the oldest indigenous languages of Europe and one of the most beautiful languages on the face of the earth.
As Minister of Education for the north I am deeply committed to playing my part in delivering on our duty and obligation to the Irish language. I know that you are too. And I can also assure you that the Department of Education in the north will be playing, to the fullest possible extent, its role in meeting parents’ demands for an Irish-medium education for their children. In schools that are thriving and are well-resourced. Schools that are revolutionary in the 21st century.
I am delighted to say that I have taken resolute action to allow children in primary schools across the north to have the chance to experience the richness of languages. I have introduced the Primary Languages Programme, where pupils learn from skilled tutors, who are enthusiastic and passionate about the language. They work along side their classroom assistants and teachers, so that the children receive the best and most enjoyable educational experience possible.
The children benefit from improved confidence, self-esteem and motivation and respect for other cultures. This boosts their learning across the curriculum, not just in their languages. Teachers frequently give me positive feedback. They tell me that there are many benefits for them too. They get enhanced knowledge and better resources, as they work beside the tutors.
I am delighted to say that this initiative has been such a success that it is to be expanded across the north. In future children in a greater number of primary schools will have the chance to experience the richness of the Irish language. And not only Irish, but also Spanish, another beautiful European language.
As minister for all children I have been working hard to allow those children in English-medium schools to also absorb and enjoy Irish from the earliest possible opportunity.
I personally feel that the exposure of an immersion education has great benefits. It is apparent to me that we in the north have the best practice in operation in respect of early immersion. This system of immersion is based on the successful international model adopted in Canada and other countries throughout the world. In my opinion, it is essential that children develop competency in Irish as early as possible before English is introduced into their education. In this way, the children will be happier to use Irish in spite of the prevalence of English around them. It is therefore clear, that this system of immersion is more effective in developing and strengthening the overall position of the language.
I believe that learning languages is one of the most natural things we can do as people. I have seen how learning an additional language is a joy for girls and boys. And when I speak to the professional, dedicated people working in gaelscoil, they tell me that they see this too. They tell me that they cannot emphasise strongly enough how much benefit it is for children’s education, especially from an English-speaking home, to have had the benefit of having been at a naíscoil. Soaking up the language while learning through play, through making new friends. Through interacting socially and emotionally. I have listened caerfully to what I have been told, and I will continue to support as fully as possible the excellent work of naíscoil. I will ensure that the good work they do gets the recognigition it deserves. And I thank everyone who has helped naíscoil make their invaluable contribution to the growth and flourishing of the language across the island of Ireland.
When we on this island work together, our children stand to benefit. And because of this I will ensure that I will make the best possible change to improve education. The work of Gaelscolaíocht Éireann is very beneficial and inspirational to me and it will very much halp me in informing the best change.
I was asked today to give you my thoughts on the importance of collaboration on an all-island basis. I believe that Gaelscolaíocht Éireann are taking forward vital work that will enhance cross-border cooperation. Linking the six counties with the border counties. That is a fantastic start, and clearly offers the best opportunity to maximise physical proximity, and similarity of dialects.
This will bring around the same table a mix of experts that will have the skills and knowledge to maximise the learning experience of our children.
We need teachers and principals. Administrators. Those who develop resources, and train our educators. These people have a particular role to play in the development of the sector. A significant role to complement the role of parents.
Parents who will seek the best life and education for their children. Who will choose Irish-medium Education in the expectation that the professionals are doing their utmost to deliver their role for the benefit of the children, whether they are in naíscoil, bunscoil, or meánscoil. Here is where we can help those that help the sector.
And that is why it makes sense for a focus, in the beginning, on the border areas. Because my experience has taught me that the professionals involved in Irish-medium are every bit as passionate as the parents. They are educators and linguists. Learned but open to new thinking. All those involved in Irish-medium education have had to be open to new thinking as they had to overcome many obstacles and problems. It is because of this openness, enthusiasm and dedication that Gaelscolaíocht is currently experiencing phenomenal growth in the north despite falling numbers of pupils.
The Irish-medium sector in the north has grown from strength to strength. Every year more children have been able to access their Irish-language heritage, a heritage which all people can celebrate. And I am determined to do my very best to maintain this exceptional growth. I feel obliged to do this because more parents are choosing gaelscolaíocht year after year. In 2007 there were over 3,000 children in gaelscoil in the north. I know that figure will grow again this year. In this way parents are telling us the importance of the work we are doing in the Irish medium sector to help our children learn through Irish. And I know that everyone in this room will continue to play their part. Our childern deserve no less.
Flexibility of thinking is characteristic of the sector and of bilinguals in general, and I know that the lessons to be learned will encompass the whole of this island. I believe that when we look we will see that there is good practice to be found in every gaelscoil. To be found and shared. Wherever there is good practice, I know that the educators and professionals will make the effort to learn, replicate and enhance it. And then pass on to their colleagues what they have learned.
At this important conference today, we will here from speakers who will give a fascinating insight into the valuable work within the sector. The spirit of learning and sharing is clearly demonstrated amongst them. Each of them will leave us more informed, the education of our children will be much richer, and, I believe, themselves richer for sharing with us. I’d like to thank every one of them for the important work that they do.
As Minister for education in the north I have a lot of opportunities to celebrate the good work that is being done in education. But being Minister is not just about celebrating what is good. I also have a lot of challenges to face. So I am determined to celebrate what is good, and in Irish-medium Education there is a lot that is good. And I am determined to make things better where I can.
I see that the important work in sharing across borders will contribute to making things better. In delivering learning by using classroom resources fine tuned to the needs of the Irish-language. Books. Computer programmes. And sport. Gaelic games in particular help enhance the socio-linguistic support environment that builds our children’s confidence and inspires them. And so builds their achievement.
Gaelscolaíocht Éireann should be commended for its ongoing efforts in promoting and developing Irish medium education. This project continues to establish strong cross border cooperation – a reflection of the good relations which have been built up over recent years.
The Irish language is a heritage of all the people of this island. Many Northern Presbyterians are proud of the role that Gaeilgeoirí from their church have played in the preservation and development of the language. I hope to see a future where, once again, many more Presbyterian’s play a role. Recently, we have seen acts of significant generosity from the unionist community. For example, a local minister in Crumlin presented a bible to Gaelscoil Ghleann Darach when the school was opened in 2007. The DUP Lord Mayor of Newtownards attended the official opening of a new gaelscoil in Glengormly. Long may this good-will continue.
I am always delighted when I visit a school in the North and I am greeted by children speaking in Irish and let me tell you that this isn’t just in Irish medium schools either. I am regularly greeted by children in English medium schools in Irish and this can only go to highlight that Irish is a language which everyone can be proud of and which can also offer cultural benefits to all.
I know that Gaelscolaíocht Éireann have begun important work on addressing this issue by undertaking research into the way in which Irish medium schools can address the problems of racism and sectarianism. Speakers of the Irish language are welcoming and outward looking. And I know that as we move forward, Irish speakers will play their part to the full in sharing the richness and the joys of the language, bringing her to areas where it is not yet known. Glengormly as well as the Glens of Antrim. Ballymena as well as Ballymun. Irish speakers have hearts large enough to accommodate all that value our shared heritage.
I would like to commend Gaelscolaíocht Éireann for the important steps they have begun on behalf of us all. Steps to bring the Irish language to all communities. Communities of different faiths. And of none.
Also those born overseas, who have chose to come to this island to make a better life for themselves. As many have left this island in the past. All are welcome in Irish-medium schools. And all will benefit from the high-quality teaching they will find there.
Because high-quality education is key. I want to see all schools thrive, primary and post-primary, English and Irish-medium. All of us have a role to play in our quest to provide a stable and prosperous future for our children.
My Department has carried out a review of Irish medium education in the north. The aim of this review is to ensure that Irish medium education is fully and appropriately supported as an integral part of the educational system and contributes to the building of a brighter future for all our citizens, based on equality.
The Irish-medium sector has high expectations. They expect much of themselves, in setting up schools, against the odds. They expect, and receive, much from the dedicated, energetic and resourceful teachers that are at the heart of the classrooms.
And they expect, rightly, the support from the education system to deliver its part of the bargain. I will be looking very hard to ensure that everything that can be done is being done.
Looking for best practice wherever it can be found. I am delighted to see that our colleagues in Wales and Scotland are recognised as valuable contacts. With shared goals and challenges. Seeking to preserve and nurture their indigenous languages as an invaluable jewel which is just as relevant today as it was in the past. We can learn much from them as they face the same challenges as us. And I know that we have much that we can share, and be proud of. As well as eagerly learning, we will happily share our own best practice. I look forward to seeing the benefits of the Scottish and Welsh experiences shared among our learning communities.
I would like to thank everyone for their efforts to date and wish you all every success for the future. I applaud the energy and commitment that I feel in this room. I know that, together, you will find ways to work together to provide the best for our children. That is an endeavour we can all be proud of.