Students with disabilities will no longer need a formal diagnosis in order to seek an exemption from studying Irish, as part of the first overhaul of the system in more than 25 years.
Under guidelines to be introduced next month, those seeking an exemption from studying the language will no longer be required to undergo a psychological assessment.
However, exemptions from studying the Irish language will only be granted to students in “rare and exceptional circumstances”, according to the Department of Education.
Under the new criteria, students in special schools or in special classes attached to mainstream schools will not be required to apply for an exemption, and schools will be allowed to use discretion to best meet their students’ needs.
While the decision to grant an exemption from studying Irish will continue to be made by a school’s principal, students and their parents will now be able to appeal a refusal.
Following the changes, students with significant learning difficulties may be granted an exemption once they reach second class, and have, at the time of application, scored at or below the 10th percentile in reading comprehension or spelling.
In cases where a child was educated outside of Ireland, or educated outside of the country for at least three years, children now need to be at least 12 years old in order to qualify for an exemption.
Previously this age- criteria was set at 11 years of age.
A decision to grant an exemption will only be taken, according to the department, following “detailed discussion with the student’s parent or guardian, teacher, special education teachers, and the student”. Detailed guidelines on the new criteria, which will only apply in English-medium schools, will be issued to schools in the coming weeks.
The overhaul of the system follows a “phenomenal level of interest” in the public consultation on the matter, said Education Minister Joe McHugh.
The public consultation on the issue of exemptions, which ran last December and January, saw an unprecedented response, with more than 11,100 individuals sharing their views. Almost 60% of these were parents.
“An overhaul of the system for granting exemptions from the study of Irish is long overdue,” Mr McHugh said.
“The decision to grant an exemption from the study of Irish should not be taken lightly.
“It is an important decision that will have implications for the student’s future learning.
“The benefits of bilingualism and studying a language from a young age are becoming better understood, with studies showing it helps mental agility, makes it easier to learn a third or more languages, and that it can help support a child’s academic achievement in other subjects, like mathematics.”
The Department of Education has committed to reviewing the criteria in two years’ time to ensure the changes are being implemented as intended, he added.