There were grey skies over Inis Meáin, the smallest in terms of population and most remote of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, but great excitement in the air as Islanders awaited the arrival of An Taoiseach (PM) Leo Varadkar. The Taoiseach, accompanied by Ministers of State Sean Kyne and Joe McHugh and his senior civil servants, briefly mingled with the students of Coláiste Naomh Eoin as well as their Head Teacher, Mairéad Ní Fhátharta.
An Taoiseach was on Inis Meáin to officially hand over the new Roll Number to the school. Previously under the patronage of a Co. Galway mainland school, the Island school was recently recognised by the Department of Education and Skills as a stand-alone school entity under Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board. Being Prime Minister of the country, there was naturally a healthy contingent of media representatives scrambling for position, jostling to be first to ask questions or take a photo or shoot some television footage.
Disappointingly, none of their questions had anything to do with why Mr. Varadkar was on this small island, noted for the purity of its spoken Irish and beauty of its miles of stone walls. There was no light to be shone on the challenges facing all of the off-shore islands, no publicity given to on-going battles for proper air service, health care or funding to community development offices to name a few. Questions centred on matters of national importance – for example, the likelihood of a general election.
However, from September2018 increased funding of €15,000 per annum will be available to the five off-shore post-primary schools to help pay additional operational costs. Teacher allocations will also be increased in these schools from one extra teacher to one and a half. The package of benefits to Island secondary schools was put in place by Minister for Education Richard Bruton as part of the Government’s policy on Gaeltacht Education and was influenced by the efforts of the Galway Roscommon Education and Training Board (GRETB).
These are promising developments but there remain several challenges to both primary and secondary level Island schools in Ireland. Oileáin Chléire, County Cork, nearly lost its primary school a month ago when the school’s two teachers, after spending their entire careers on Chléire, were due to retire without replacements being found. However, the school reopened the 30th of August with a temporary head teacher. The search continues for a second teacher for the school.
Attracting primary and secondary level teachers to Island posts is an on-going issue as is filling posts for teaching courses taught through Irish. There are teaching opportunities advertised for positions on Oileáin Chléire and three other islands: Inis Meáin, Inis Mór and Inishturk. While these are great opportunities for any teacher wanting to spread their wings and experience life on the islands, it is felt that more needs to be done to make these island-based jobs more appealing. The Oireachtas (Legislature)Education Committee has recommended reinstatement of the€1,600 annual allowance to Island teachers to help off-set the increased cost of living on an island.
The ability to deliver a well-rounded and up-to-date curriculum in Island schools is also a concern. The Importance of STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math) in producing adults with not only a well-rounded education but better problem-solving skills, creativity and team-working abilities is acknowledged and can be achieved if proper supports are in place. This makes it even more important that greater enticements to attract teachers to islands are implemented.
As noted by Tomás MacPháidin of GRETB, “Some improvements in provision (to Island schools) were conceded by Government between 1997 and 2000, but little since that time. Since 2013 however, I have supported a coordinated approach, collating the challenges, proposing costed solutions, and seeking island specific education policy, and indeed island proofing of all Government policy.” Following on from the completion of this report, Mr. MacPháidin has arranged an Island Education Conference to be held in Dublin in October of this year and will be speaking on education on Irish Islands at the European Small Islands Federation (ESIN) Conference in Brussels in September.
An Taoiseach’s Dept. are currently conducting a National Risk Register and GRETB will highlight Island education challenges as a National Cultural Risk, given that Ireland’s island Population has fallen from 8,700 to 2,700 over the past century or so, including a 40% drop since 1970s.
Writing in the Draft Risk Assessment 2018, the GRETB states: “… island communities must be treated as a case apart in the Government’s consideration of what constitutes strategic risk. Central to that consideration must be a concerted effort by the Irish State and all its agencies to reverse island population decline in order to ensure the sustainability of island communities into the future.”
The report continues: “The provision of high quality education to all the communities it serves is GRETB’s mission. Island communities form a unique cultural and linguistic cohort of those communities, and the islands’ schools … are central to the future sustainability of offshore island communities.”
A unique and effective enticement to study at secondary level in some island schools is the provision of a grant to help off-set the cost of boarding. Students find the island environment encourages the learning and everyday use of Irish, forges strong friendships and provides an environment perhaps very different from that on the mainland. The school and island involved also benefit: on small islands any increase in enrollment and population is welcome and these young people add energy and a small economic boost to the community. It is hoped more grants will be made available for this scheme.
The recently announced benefits to off-shore Island secondary schools were achieved after years of lobbying and work by the GRETB and DETB and are very welcome. However, it is felt vital that Government put in place an Island-proofed policy for not only education but all Government policy. As expressed by GRETB in their report, “The State must, however, recognize this uniqueness (of Islands) and support the island communities by way of planned, strategic and systematic inter-departmental intervention, recognizing the risk to said island communities and intervening in a meaningful way.”