Supporters of Gaelic-medium education are calling for parents to be given the right to have their children educated in the language, warning that current legislation may not go far enough.
Meanwhile, one of the first parents to test the new legislation giving families the right to request Gaelic-medium education (GME) has described the new duty as “very weak” and easy for councils to ignore.
Across Scotland last year, more than 5,600 pupils engaged in GME from nursery through to secondary. The most recent national statistics, for 2017, show a total of about 689,000 pupils attending Scotland’s schools.
Still, proponents of GME are in agreement: they have a success story, and it is about more than numbers. An understanding that education in Scotland is now taught in two core languages had been established at the “highest level of government”, said Jim Whannel, chair of the Bòrd na Gàidhlig learning committee.
But when the new Glasgow Gaelic primary opens next year, there will still be just six GME schools in Scotland – only one of which has a secondary department. Of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, fewer than half have GME primary or secondary education, with a similar number of councils offering Gaelic as a language in their schools.
Emma Holmes, who is studying for a doctorate in medieval Celtic studies, was one of the first people to test new legislation that allows parents to request Gaelic-medium primary education from their local authority. Ms Holmes’ bid to East Renfrewshire council was refused, despite her gaining the backing of almost 50 parents – although the local authority disputes this figure.
Ultimately she moved to Glasgow to guarantee her son – who started school this month – an education in Gaelic. But Ms Holmes believes parents should be granted the right to GME, not just the right to request it.
She said: “The legislation is very weak and it’s easy for local authorities not to comply if they don’t want to. Look at the level of interest I managed to generate – and [the request] was rejected.”
Professor Rob Dunbar, chair of Celtic and Scottish studies at the University of Edinburgh, is in agreement.
It was early days for the new right to request GME in primary – it was introduced in 2016 and came into force last year – but early signs were “discouraging”, he said.
An entitlement, contingent upon sufficient demand from parents, would “push things forward with a greater degree of urgency”, he said. Professor Dunbar added: “There are structural problems, like teacher numbers and facilities and all sorts of financial barriers. But without a right and the consequences that flow from that – which is the possibility of a successful challenge in court – these issues will not get seriously addressed. Without a bit of a stick, sometimes goodwill does not translate into action. It’s human nature.”
East Renfrewshire Council said it carried out an initial assessment of the demand among parents for GME and “the requirement of demonstrating demand from at least five children in a year group was not met”.
The spokesman added that the council was fully supportive of the “small number” of East Renfrewshire parents seeking Gaelic education, with free transport being provided so that they can access provision in neighbouring authorities.
A Scottish government spokesman said that local authorities had a duty to assess any requests made by parents of children under school age to provide Gaelic in their primary. “At a minimum, the authority must be satisfied there are parents of at least five children resident in the same assessment area and in the same preschool group who want to learn the language,” he added. “Other considerations include the availability of teachers and cost factors.”
This is an edited version of an article in the 31 August edition of Tes Scotland. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. This week's Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here.