Belfast Telegraph

Revealed: The different languages spoken in Northern Ireland schools

15,200 pupils 'don't have good grasp of English'

The annual budgets for more than 600 schools in Northern Ireland have been turned down.
The annual budgets for more than 600 schools in Northern Ireland have been turned down.
Diversity: Avril Hall Callaghan
Adrian Rutherford

By Adrian Rutherford

More than 15,000 pupils in Northern Ireland do not have a good enough grasp of English to fully participate in school life.

The number of "newcomer" students has risen by over 5,000 in five years.

They represent 4.4% of the school population, a report by the Department of Education has revealed. A newcomer pupil is defined by the report as someone who lacks "satisfactory language skills to participate fully in their school's curriculum".

Almost 90 different first languages are spoken by pupils, of which Polish and Lithuanian are the most common.

The report's key findings include:

  • Some 173,744 pupils are enrolled in primary schools - the highest since 1999/00.
  • A further 140,545 pupils are in post-primary schools, a slight increase on last year.
  • Around 14,400 pupils in schools are recorded as non-white - an increase of 4,400 from five years previously.
  • More than 23,000 pupils participate in integrated education, up more than 500 since last year.

The Department of Education bulletin analyses enrolment data from the 2017/18 school census.

It states that schools are "increasingly becoming more ethnically diverse".

"The growth in diversity in the school system may be explained by increased levels of migration among school age children over the last number of years," it continues.

According to the report, there has been a rise year-on-year in the number of pupils whose first language is not English.

In total, students speak 89 first languages - 6,671 are native Polish speakers and 2,797 speak Lithuanian.

The report notes an increase in the number and proportion of newcomer pupils in schools here.

It states: "In 2017/18, there are more than 15,200 newcomer pupils accounting for 4.4% of the school population. This has risen by almost 5,500 pupils from five years prior."

Avril Hall Callaghan, general secretary of the Ulster Teachers' Union, said migrant children brought challenges but also benefits for our education system.

"Teachers are already coping with hugely reduced classroom assistant support, ever increasing class sizes and the emergence of a greater number of children with more complex learning and behavioural challenges - children who in the past would not even have been in mainstream schools," she said.

"Add then to this mix a migrant child uprooted from their homeland, living in a new community with a new culture, in a new school and not fully conversant with the language, and you can see the challenge is huge for teacher and pupil.

"Yet these children and families have so much to offer Northern Ireland, not least in increasing the ethnic diversity of our society which can only be a good thing given the increasingly global nature of our world today."

Noella Murray is principal of St John the Baptist College in Drumcree, Co Armagh, where 39% of the students do not have English as their first language. She said the school had to employ multilingual classroom assistants for children who didn't know a word of English when they arrived.

"It would be great to have multilingual teachers within the school and I do envisage a day when that will be the case because we have a growing diverse community and we need do be adapting to suit that," she said.

The Department of Education said a policy for supporting newcomer pupils was published in 2009.

It recognises that significant difficulty with the language of instruction presents a barrier to learning for newcomer pupils, and seeks to develop the capacity of schools to respond.

It said schools are helped to support newcomer pupils in two ways, including the Education Authority's InterCultural Education Service, which provides support and specialist advice to schools.

Schools with newcomer pupils also receive additional funding of around £1,000 per newcomer pupil.

Languages spoken in Northern Ireland schools and by how many pupils

English - 307569

Polish - 6671

Lithuanian - 2797

Portuguese - 1279

Romanian - 1005

Malayalam - 814

Arabic - 723

Tagalog/Filipino- 668

Slovak - 580

Latvian - 567

Chinese (Mandarin/Putonghua) - 545

Bulgarian - 502

Hungarian - 502

Irish - 454

Chinese (Cantonese) - 483

Russian - 474

Tetum - 426

Spanish - 326

Chinese (Any Other) - 256

Hindi - 240

Bengali/Bangla/Sylheti - 206

Urdu - 193

Somali - 172

Czech - 169

Telugu - 132

Italian - 130

French - 128

Thai - 107

German - 106

Tamil - 104

Romany - 99

Panjabi - 85

Malay/Indonesian - 71

Albanian/Shqip - 62

Nepali - 62

Shona - 59

Turkish - 57

Yoruba - 50

Pashto/Pakhto - 48

Afrikaans - 42

Greek - 42

Marathi - 40

Edo/Bini - 38

Dutch/Flemish - 34

Japanese - 31

Kurdish - 31

Persian/Farsi - 31

Igbo - 30

British Sign Language - 28

Korean - 28

Gujarati - 23

Fijian - 22

Kannada - 22

Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian - 19

Swedish - 19

Ukrainian- 17

Swahili/Kiswahili - 14

Vietnamese - 14

Finnish - 13

Pahari/Himachali (India) - 9

Slovenian - 9

Creole English - 8

Xhosa - 8

Norwegian - 7

Danish - 6

Ndebele - 6

Sinhala/Sinalese - 6

Tswana/Setswana - 5

Zulu - 5

Other - 183

language with less than 5 speaker are masked to protect the child, they include:



Chinese (Hokkien/Fujianese)

Chinese (Hakka)

Creole French












Ulster Scots



Source: Department of Education, NI school census

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