ESRI Research Series

Adapting to Diversity: Irish Schools and Newcomer Students

This report has been peer reviewed prior to publication. The authors are solely responsible for the content and the views expressed.

June 3, 2009
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Since the 1990s, Ireland has seen immigration of a scale and speed unprecedented in comparative context. Immigration has posed challenges for schools with little prior experience of dealing with cultural diversity. This is the first national study of school provision for newcomer (immigrant) students. It draws on a survey of 1,200 primary and second-level schools as well as detailed case-studies of twelve schools.

The main findings of the study are:

• The vast majority of second-level schools have newcomer students. In contrast, four in ten primary schools have no newcomers while there are a number of primary schools with quite high concentrations of newcomers.

• Newcomers are more likely to attend urban schools and those already catering for more disadvantaged student groups. This reflects the interaction between residential patterns, availability of school places and school admission policies.

• Newcomer students are seen by teachers as motivated and hard-working, placing a high value on education.

• Most newcomers do not have English as a first language. Language needs, if not addressed, are seen to hinder the academic development and social integration of newcomer students. Language needs among newcomer parents make it difficult to involve parents in their child’s education since few schools have access to translation services.

• Schools most commonly withdraw students from class for additional language support. However, newcomers spend most of their time being taught by mainstream classroom or subject teachers, few of whom have received training on teaching English as an additional language.

• Many schools have built up a team of committed and enthusiastic language support teachers. However, principals and teachers would like to see more training for teachers, guidance on best practice and access to teaching materials suitable for older students learning English.

• Two-thirds of second-level schools and half of primary schools have put formal measures in place to support the social integration of newcomer students. Relations between newcomer and Irish students are seen as broadly positive. However, there is some evidence of segregation in friendship patterns and incidences of bullying based on nationality or ethnicity.

• A positive school climate (that is, good relations among teachers, parents and students) enhances the academic and social development of newcomer students.

Despite the recession, diversity is likely to remain a feature of Irish society. In the context of scare resources, it is important to avoid a trade-off between the needs of newcomer and Irish students. This study indicates that promoting a positive school climate and teaching to the range of abilities in the class will benefit both newcomer and Irish students.