The following is a Platform Piece by the Party's Education spokesperson and vice-Chair of the Assembly's Education committee, Danny Kinahan MLA, which appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on Tuesday 30 July.
Dr Michael O Duibh is Chairman of the representative body for Irish-medium education in Northern Ireland. In Wednesday’s platform piece he sought to position his sector as key to the advancement of shared education in Northern Ireland. Mr O Duibh is mistaken.
Whilst recent Education Ministers have looked favourably to the Irish-medium sector, and whilst 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 DENI’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 only 4,600 pupils; that’s 1.3% of the entire Northern Ireland school population of over 313,000 young people.
Despite 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?
The issue of quality education; figures show that in 2012/13 43.5% of the 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.
Whilst I fully acknowledge that there are a range of attainment levels across every sector, unfortunately for Mr O Duibh the limited evidence available does not demonstrate that Irish-medium schools offer an outstanding education.
The issue of demand; whilst 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 is 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 Chairman of Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta quoted an interesting statistic in his platform piece. 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 8 all have fewer than 5. 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. People working across the education system need to agree a long-term future with collaboration rather than isolationism at its core.
All sectors will need to make compromises and consider new viewpoints whether they are maintained, controlled, voluntary, Irish-medium or integrated. Working together will always accomplish more than operating in isolation.
Above all we need leadership from the Minister and unfortunately his track record does not support collaborative consultation but seems to favour an ‘ourselves alone’ approach.
The concept of a genuinely shared education system holds wide appeal for many parents and has attracted support from President Obama, his predecessor President Bush and the UK Government.
Whilst there is undoubtedly a place for Irish-medium education within the new arrangements, I believe that Michael 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.