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Classroom brain's in Spain

21st-century Gaelic-medium education is being piloted from a northern Spanish port, reports

The teacher sits at home in the Spanish port of Vigo while his S1 and S2 pupils are working in classrooms more than 1,000 miles away in Plockton, Tain, Tobermory, Islay and Cumbernauld.

They communicate in Gaelic and together they follow lessons in geography.

This is 21st-century Gaelic-medium education for secondary pupils. And in the short to medium term - maybe even the long-term - such distance learning online may be the best, or only, means of teaching the secondary curriculum through Gaelic.

Gillebride MacMillan is the Scottish teacher leading the Gaelic-medium geography distance learning project, backed by the Storlann Gaelic resource centre in Lewis, the Gaelic ICT Group (led by Bruce Robertson, director of education for Highland), and Learning and Teaching Scotland.

Next month, the Gaelic ICT group hopes to extend this pilot to two more schools - Ardnamurchan and Forfar - and to offer similar courses in modern studies, history and maths.

Mr MacMillan, 27, has lived in Galicia since his marriage to his Spanish fiancee, but he was born in South Uist, where Gaelic was his first language. He is one of that rare breed - a secondary teacher able to teach in Gaelic; he pre-viously taught geography and Gaelic in Forfar Academy in Angus for two-and-a-half years. He is now a tutor and writer of online courses as well as a translator.

As online geography tutor to his S1S2 pupils many miles away in Scotland, he is dependent in part on the Gaelic-speaking mentors who work in the classrooms with the pupils. He also visits the schools twice a year, and this year led a field trip at the Loch Eil outdoor centre near Fort William.

"If the pupils have questions that they need to ask in the class, they have a mentor in the classroom who speaks Gaelic but is not a geography teacher," he said.

Thus, in Plockton, the classroom mentor is a history teacher and at Greenfaulds High in Cumbernauld a history and Gaelic teacher.

Mr MacMillan says that while he does marking by email it would be useful at times to be able to communicate with pupils via a chatroom, but many school ICT systems do not permit them.

"Getting school pupils to become comfortable with the technology and getting the technology to work were the main challenges at the start of the year," he said.

"Differentiation was deemed necessary to stretch the more able and to help less able pupils."

The system means that the tutor can see what every pupil has written and when they wrote it. The tutor can also see if a particular pupil is working much slower than the others and inform the mentor of such cases. Then the mentor will discuss the problem with the pupil or tell the tutor if there has been long-term absence or other issues. Any classroom discipline problems are dealt with by the mentor.

Although Mr MacMillan says the pupils are doing well on the course, one problem he has found is that some pupils struggle with the vocabulary needed to do work at this level.

"Many don't speak Gaelic at home and, in any case, they might not have had the vocabulary in English until they were taught it. Generally, they pick it up quickly. Geography is quite open and accessible because it deals with things like the weather, housing or farming - things you speak about in general, day to day."

He added: "The ideal solution would be more Gaelic teachers, but that is not going to happen in the short-term or probably long-term either."

Bruce Robertson, who chairs the Gaelic ICT group, said: "This project confirms that, using new technologies, one can deliver the course from anywhere in the world, as long as pupils have the appropriate support and subject reinforcement in their schools." He added that masterclasses were being offered to give Gaelic-speaking teachers more confidence in information technology.

"Lessons are being video-conferenced between schools in Highland for Gaelic and English medium subjects," Mr Robertson added. "I believe that Gaelic will be in the vanguard of the Scottish Schools' Digital Network development because of this project."

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