Dying Gaelic needs a lifeline

David Henderson reports on the latest SOS to ministers

A BATTERY of Gaelic education initiatives is creating only 250 new speakers a year to replace the 1,500 who die, the ministerial advisory group on Gaelic has underlined.

The survival of the language is said to be at risk without at least a fivefold increase in the 2,000 children who are currently undertaking Gaelic-medium education in primaries and secondaries.

In its report, A Fresh Start for Gaelic, the group calls on Mike Watson, Minister for Gaelic, to launch an emergency teacher training and recruitment programme. It wants targets, starting this year, set for the next decade.

Just 20 Gaelic-medium students - 17 of them in the primary sector - will graduate from the universities this summer. There is a current shortage of 15 teachers and local authorities say their projected annual demand is for 20 primary and 13 secondary staff. They are unable to open new units and respond to parent demand because of the shortage.

"Although many of the tools for language maintenance are now in place, the scale of the operation is still much too small," the group states in pressing Mr Watson for even more generous funding to attract teachers into Gaelic-medium training.

The group, chaired by Professor Donald Meek of Edinburgh University, highlights the continuing loss of pupils as they move from pre-school groups to secondary. An average 1,075 three-year-olds join Gaelic-medium nursery classes but the annual primary intake falls to 292 and the secondary intake to 104. The national trend in falling rolls will have a more marked impact in areas such as the Western Isles, it points out.

"Were it not for the establishment in the early 1980s of Gaelic-medium playgroups, school units and a range of other supporting initiatives, intergenerational language transmission would have totally collapsed 20 years ago," it states.

A 15-month public consultation found strong support for expanding Gaelic-medium education as a right, a principle backed by the SNP. The group has increased pressure on ministers by demanding legislative status for Gaelic. A key recommendation is a new Gaelic development agency.

Professor Meek forecast that the recommendations would have widespread support. "We are also confident that, given political will, these recommendations are achievable and that real progress can be quickly and effectively made towards revitalising Gaelic across Scotland," he said.

Mr Watson, who has publicly committed himself to improvements in Gaelic-medium education, said he would consider the report's findings before making an official response.

His reaction was more measured than that of Brian Wilson, former Scottish Office education minister, who this week claimed little had been done in the past five years.

Mr Wilson, now Energy Minister at Westminster, said: "Nobody looking at the position of Gaelic could regard the issue as anything other than one of great urgency."

The civil service answer was to pay lip-service to ministers' demands.

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