My eldest has survived a full week of early mornings, after the three-month holiday enjoyed by students in Irish secondary schools. My younger pair returned to primary on Thursday. So far, it’s a novelty – the thrill of seeing their friends and moving up a year. Though, at roll-call, their new teachers probably gulp when it comes to their tongue-twister Bosnian surname.
Each year, I explain its diacritic consonants. The ć that sounds like ‘ch’ and the š that’s said as ‘sh’. The teachers’ initial attempts are often somewhere between a choke and a sneeze but, eventually, they manage it. To their relief, my daughters’ first names are simpler and without confusing letters. A trivial issue, perhaps. As a parent, I’m afraid that I make too big a deal of it. That I’m interrupting the teachers’ busy schedules. Anyone who’s travelled with an Irish name like mine will know how hard it can be for others to get the pronunciation right.
But for children whose identity can be categorised as ‘minority’, it’s important. Living in Ireland as the native half of an Irish-Bosnian couple, I can transcribe my kids’ surname in a way that English-speakers understand. However, for parents from migrant backgrounds that’s less easy. Language barriers, differing norms in relation to education, unfamiliarity with the system – these can intimidate immigrant parents. That’s why a welcoming environment is vital. Small gestures mean a lot… some multilingual signs, teachers checking with parents as to how to say their children’s names. Because parents may be reluctant to make the first move and kids can’t be expected as – I know well from my own – to volunteer information. Even at secondary level, they prefer to let things go rather than ‘sticking out’ among their peer group. Schools must be pro-active.
In Ireland, many are. But this country is still new to widespread cultural diversity. Its history has been one of emigration, a blight which has returned with the recession. Yet the phenomenon of immigration, which emerged in the mid-nineties and continued throughout the economic boom, hasn’t disappeared. The 2011 census showed a record 12% of Ireland’s population is of ‘non-Irish’ origin. Latest figures for 2013 reveal a renewed rise in the number of immigrants arriving here. Due to family reunification and couples deciding to settle, the proportion of school-age children of ‘non-indigenous’ heritage has increased. Never was there more need for intercultural education.
While the last few years have seen commendable strategies and guidelines, little has been done to ensure their implementation. On the contrary, this area has been one of the worst affected by a swathe of cutbacks. The provision of language support for children learning English as an additional language has been severely hit, with reductions in designated teaching posts and negligible investment in resources or training. Compounded by other pressures, from rising class sizes to decreasing support for children who have special educational needs, this means intercultural concerns could slide down schools’ priority lists. The voices of children from migrant backgrounds risk going unheard.
How to respond to diversity in these cash-strapped times? Perhaps just by realising the cultural richness which immigrant children bring with them. A trove of knowledge for all – direct exchanges of experiences and opinions can be more memorable than any text-book. Exploring different beliefs… For my kids, it’s part of life in an inter-faith home but it’s also something they know about from visits to Sarajevo, where churches, mosques and synagogues coexist.
But this kind of information only slips out occasionally at school. Inadvertently, in Irish class, when the teacher asks which foods they like and my daughter says she doesn’t eat ham because her dad’s a Muslim. And another child adds he doesn’t eat burgers because his parents are Hindu. Priceless learning opportunities – coming at no cost, but easily lost.
Consider language…. The linguistic wealth of Ireland’s immigrant population is a vast and untapped seam of huge potential. Encouraging immigrant children to maintain their home languages, while enabling them to acquire the language(s) of education, has been internationally proven to yield positive results. Even on a small scale, plurilingual approaches, which recognise the range of languages present in the classroom and promote their use to whatever extent possible, can benefit all children in today’s globalised world. Teachers don’t need to be fluent in Lithuanian or Urdu. A willingness to engage with immigrant children and their parents is enough. And maybe, in the process, to learn a few new words!
Geography, history likewise, can be brought to life by children sharing what they know of other places, from being there or hearing stories from relatives. My kids discovered this for themselves, standing in the ever-controversial footsteps of Gavrilo Princip…
Speaking of polemics, enrolment policies can be a thornier subject. In Ireland, education remains largely denominational – the legacy of colonialism and the post-independence twinning of nationalism and religion. Embracing diversity isn’t enshrined within its structure, although moves are afoot to introduce long overdue reform. To illustrate – a mysterious ‘pork allergy’ is how I’ve explained our Islamo-veggie halal diet when enrolment forms fell short of accounting for cultural difference. However, at a more serious level, institutional discrimination has raised problems for parents in securing school places for their children. Apart from the question of religious affiliation, which can lead to the faith-based favouring of certain applicants, immigrant families have faced other hurdles. In highly populated areas, the practice of enrolling children at primary school from birth (if not before) has best served parents already established in the locality. Outlining draft legislation to regulate school admissions, published on 2 September, the Minister for Education has acknowledged that the current system is ‘very arbitrary and quite unfair’.
There’s also the need to consider wider causes of exclusion. The worrying trend that, in some urban centres, children from migrant backgrounds are becoming concentrated in particular schools. Increasing incidents of racism, including racial bullying of children, have been documented by research such as that conducted by the Immigrant Council of Ireland. Above all, socio-economic disadvantage is something the state must tackle, as this is the greatest threat to truly equitable and inclusive education.
Much to be done… And Ireland’s report card reads ‘could do better’. But its diversity shines a beacon of hope through the bleakness of austerity. For this country is blessed with a powerful resource – its children of many cultures.
A version of this post was published in the Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 20 September 2013, available online at:
Some useful links:
Immigrant Council of Ireland – http://www.immigrantcouncil.ie/ (See Publications section for reports on racism & tool-kit for schools: ‘Pathways to Parental Leadership’)
The Integration Centre – http://www.integrationcentre.ie/ (See Publications section for reports on racism & guide for young people and their families: ‘At Home in Ireland’)