Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Immigrant schooling debate must not be stifled by political correctness

THE DEBATE opened up by Fine Gael’s Brian Hayes on the separation of immigrant children from class until they are proficient in English should be welcomed. However, so far this debate has been stifled by needless political correctness and a shameful use of the ‘race card’. Part of the problem here is that no one wants to talk about the challenges presented by immigration, and that we are governed by a hysterical fear of causing offence. It is a warm and comforting blanket of silence which we have wrapped ourselves in.

For raising an issue that elected representatives usually run a mile from, Brian Hayes should be commended. Now, we must examine the issues herein.

Already the back lash has begun. Instead of examining the reality of the situation in our schools, various individuals and organisations have simply tried to embarrass those opening the debate into submission by throwing about inflammatory terms like ‘racist’.

The New Communities Partnership, an immigrant integration group, criticised the plans as “highly irresponsible and offensive”.

Meanwhile, DCU lecturer Dr James O'Higgins-Norman came out saying that the Mr Hayes’ proposals were “clearly, although maybe not intentionally, racist in nature”. This is simply ridiculous, fallacious, and belittles the depravity of actual racism.

Firstly, the proposals would separate students on the basis of linguistic ability, not race. A student from Poland, Nigeria or Pakistan who has competent English would be unaffected. Secondly, we must face up to the fact that the large number of immigrants with little or no English in our schools poses numerous difficulties. Simply how does a teacher impart information with a child if he or she cannot understand what the teacher is saying?


Considering we how have classrooms more than half full with immigrant children, who may speak several different languages between them, the difficulties must be immense.

For the first time, we are asking our teachers go beyond their usual remit and teach people with little or no English. Inevitably, time which would be otherwise spent progressing through coursework must now be spent communicating with those who don’t understand the language.

One can imagine the absurdity of trying to teach a complex subject such as chemistry or physics to someone who can’t even understand what you are saying.

Most of the comment on the subject has regarded how separate immersion classes would, or would not, help a non-English speaker to learn the language. Very little has been said about the other side of the same coin – that is how immigration affects learning among Irish children. We must also ask what is in the best interests of those children.

It is undeniable - and perhaps this is reflected in the ASTI’s support of the measures – that having children who cannot speak English in a class will slow down the progress of other students. This is simply common sense. There are a limited number of hours in the school day, and those spent trying to communicate basic, non-academic information are hours wasted. The implications of such wasted hours for Leaving Cert students, in particular, cannot be shied away from.

No one wants the extended segregation of immigrant children, which would be detrimental to cohesion, but an initial program of immersion, separate from the main class would be of benefit to both immigrant and Irish students. Once their English skills improve, they then could be integrated into the class as normal.

Whatever the best option may be, we must have calm, open and honest public debate about this issue. Burying our heads in the sand is not an option.