The reproduction of inequality in the Irish-medium education sector in Northern Ireland

  • Orla McGurk

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This research examines the extent to which inequality persists and is reproduced in the education system in Northern Ireland for children of the Irish-medium education sector. Irish-medium Education (IME), despite being a thriving sector of education in Northern Ireland, remains marginalised, while the benefits of immersion education continue to be overlooked as a result of political and communal disdain towards the language in a post-conflict society.

A plethora of educational and linguistic research exists illustrating the distinct advantages of immersion education, through which a child is not only able to acquire proficiency in other languages, but also develop extensive cognitive and decoding capabilities applicable to other subjects. Notwithstanding this, a strong correlation also persists between special-educational needs (SEN) and children from socio-economic deprived area in which most Irish-medium institutions are located in the Northern Irish Education Sector as I will demonstrate in this thesis. Given the youth of the sector and being established through the height of civil unrest during the Troubles, there is a lack of research on good practice with regard to SEN provision in Irish-medium Education (IME). IME and Irish Language Rights are contested subjects in the current political situation of Northern Ireland, and I seek to determine to which degree SEN students in IME being are supported, included and considered as equal to their monolingual English-speaking peers. I explore and assess the current facilities and resources being provided for SEN in IME mainstream schools at primary and post-primary levels through interviews and focus groups with students, parents, school staff and departmental bodies to signify where improvements could be made. I compare the current provision for IME to provision for SEN in other Immersion Educational settings in the United Kingdom.

In this research, I apply Bourdieu and Passeron’s (1970) theoretical framework of reproduction to assess the extent to which inequality and inequity persists in the Northern Irish education sector, particularly in relation to children in the Irish-medium Education sector and those with additional educational, emotional, behavioural and learning needs. I analyse the Northern Irish education sector using the theoretical tools of Field, Habitus and Capital, and how the concept of symbolic violence permeates Northern Irish society through various class systems and the education sector resultant upon the deficient attitudes towards the Irish language.

For the data collection section of this research, I employ a Participatory Action Research Approach within my research methodology with the establishment of three Youth Participatory Advisory Groups who assisted me in the research design of this study. Participatory Action Research strives to give voice to marginalised groups in society and presents them with the opportunity to express their testimonies as experts of their lived experience. The research study comprises of 12 semi-structured interviews and four focus group discussions.

This research study took place during the height of the Covid-19 Health Pandemic of March 2020 and had a severe methodological impact on the data collection of this thesis. The research participants in this study, whilst offering unwavering support for the Irish promotion of the Irish language in a divided society, also give insight to the shortcomings of their experiences with respect to both educational provision and societal acceptance of the language.

I conclude that the reproductive nature of inequality of the education system in Northern Ireland deeply impacts the Irish-medium sector with respect to language rights and provision. I recommend that linguistic services, resources, facilities and legislation should be addressed in order to provide a pathway to equality for the Irish language in Northern Irish society.

Thesis embargoed until 31 December 2024
Date of AwardDec 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Ireland Department for the Economy
SupervisorAllen Thurston (Supervisor) & Alison MacKenzie (Supervisor)


  • Irish-medium education
  • Irish language
  • education
  • additional needs
  • Northern Ireland
  • class
  • minority language
  • equality
  • reproduction
  • Bourdieu
  • Bourdieusian theory

Cite this