Watch your language in shared education debate
Irish-medium schools have their place but not in the vanguard of a truly integrated education system, writes Danny Kinahan
Dr Micheal O Duibh is chief executive of the representative body for Irish-medium education in Northern Ireland. On this page last week, he sought to position his sector as key to the advancement of shared education here. Dr O Duibh is mistaken.
While recent education ministers have looked favourably on the Irish-medium sector and while minority languages were upheld in the Belfast Agreement, the Ulster Unionist Party doesn't believe that any particular sector should be given undue advantage over another.
Unfortunately, that is what the current, flawed ESA (Education) Bill is shamelessly trying to do – and that is why my party will be challenging it.
The Ulster Unionist Party believes that pupils and parents should be free to choose schools and subjects and, when it comes to languages, have a range of options which will serve them well for life and work in the global marketplace. French, German, Chinese, Spanish and, indeed, Irish are all useful.
If you look at the Department of Education's figures regarding the strength of Irish-medium education, you will see there are 28 primary schools and one post-primary, along with some 13 Irish-medium units of differing types.
Between them, all they have are only 4,600 pupils; that's 1.3% of the entire Northern Ireland school population of more than 313,000 young people.
In spite of their small market-share, we recognise Irish-medium as a valid choice for some parents; however, the real questions are whether they deliver a quality education and whether there is enough demand to make the sector sustainable.
On the issue of quality education, figures show that, in 2012/13, 43.5% of pupils who attended the only Irish-medium post-primary school, Colaiste Feirste, achieved five GCSEs, including English and maths at grades A* to C. This is significantly below the overall Northern Ireland average of 60.1% for post-primaries.
While I fully acknowledge that there are a range of attainment levels across every sector, unfortunately for Dr O Duibh, the limited evidence available does not demonstrate that Irish-medium schools offer an outstanding education.
On the issue of demand, while the Ulster Unionist Party does not universally accept the arbitrary Bain benchmark of 105 pupils supposedly needed to make primary schools sustainable, the minister himself seems wedded to it.
Of the 28 Irish-medium primary schools, 17 fall short of minimum enrolment numbers. How, then, can he possibly justify opening new Irish-medium schools, often in large urban areas, when there is insufficient local demand?
The chief executive of Comhairle na Gaelscolaiochta quoted an interesting statistic: he indicated that, because 72% of Irish-medium schools are within the "other maintained sector", they were somehow more integrated.
The fact is, of the 29 Irish-medium schools, 21 have no Protestant pupils, and the remaining eight all have fewer than five.
Out of 4,600 pupils, there are no more than 40 Protestants pupils. Hardly a statistic that turns the Irish-medium sector into the flag-carrier of shared education.
Shared education must now become a definitive target, rather than a distant aspiration.
Micheal O Duibh is mistaken if he seriously expects the rest of us to buy the notion of Irish-medium education leading the vanguard towards a single, shared system.
Danny Kinahan MLA is UUP education spokesman and vice-chairman of the Assembly's education committee.