Although there has been much discussion about shared education, one sector has been almost absent from this debate – Irish-medium education.
Currently, 6% of Irish-medium primary schools are within the controlled sector, 22% within the Catholic maintained sector and 72% within the other maintained sector, showing that education through Irish can be a choice for everyone.
In the context of a shared future, the question has been asked if we can have integrated schools in the Irish-medium sector.
The truth is that 72% of all Irish-medium primary schools are independent, outside of the controlled or Catholic-maintained sector and have pupils from Catholic, Protestant and other backgrounds.
International research shows that bilingual pupils have a greater tolerance of other cultures, something which is most relevant to the principles of shared education.
Research commissioned by the Department of Education for Northern Ireland (Deni) has indicated that Irish-medium children were more open to cultural diversity.
It is wrong to present the option of Irish-medium education as a barrier to advancing shared education; the opposite is true.
Irish-medium education is an innovative way of advancing shared education, making schools sustainable and providing pupils with the advantages of bilingualism.
The choice of Irish-medium is a linguistic choice, which can be catered for within any sector.
It should, therefore, not be a surprise to learn the Irish-medium sector wishes to share immersion education with more communities.
Its representative body, Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta, provides support to communities that express an interest in Irish-medium education.
It believes that, through the establishment of various school settings that meet different community needs, education through Irish for all communities is possible.
As such, there is a strong case for the establishment of Irish-medium units within controlled schools, for converting English-medium controlled schools to Irish-medium controlled schools, or consideration of federated models between Irish-medium and English-medium.
This could answer a number of challenging questions facing schools in the controlled sector.
Schooling through Irish, at its simplest, involves the delivery of the curriculum through Irish.
An Irish-medium setting can deliver the six criteria mentioned in Deni's sustainable schools policy:
* Quality educational experience – Irish-medium provision within the school would ensure a quality educational experience, increasing pupils' understanding of language, enhancing reading, writing, aural and oral abilities, while offering the other advantages of bilingualism
* Stable enrolment trends – Irish-medium education could attract more pupils from across communities and ensure stable enrolment
* Sound financial position –Schools could benefit from premiums for Irish-medium providers and shared education
* Strong leadership and management – Irish-medium provision within a school provides those involved with a chance to display dynamic leadership and management
* Accessibility – Irish-medium provision could be a strong asset in enhancing a school's accessibility to all communities
* Strong links with community – Irish-medium provision would strengthen links with all members of the community and encourage greater cultural understanding.
Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta welcomes all communities to consider Irish-medium education for their children, so that they can be part of a global society where the vast majority speak two languages.
Irish-medium education offers a system which improves children's skills in English and Irish, making them more tolerant while also providing the skills to learn further languages with greater ease.