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Gaelic education: the political background

Gaelic medium education is now a sensitive political issue. But how does it work?

Over the past 10-15 years Gaelic, widely regarded as in its death throes, has come back to life. Gaelic medium education (GME) units are a tangible sign of the revival.

Since the first primary school section was set up in Glasgow 12 years ago, a further 51 have appeared in 20 local authorities, with 1,600 pupils. Nine secondaries teach a total of 180 children some subjects in Gaelic. There are 60 pupils in three Gaelic-speaking nurseries and about 150 Gaelic-speaking play groups. But last month this burgeoning sector was threatened when South Lanarkshire Council came close to phasing out its Gaelic section in East Kilbride.

Western Isles MP Calum MacDonald (Labour), one of those who successfully lobbied the council against taking the decision, says: "It was heartening. East Kilbride showed the strength of support that Gaelic has from councillors and local people from different parts of Scotland."

Labour MP Brian Wilson has since proposed protecting GME by taking responsibility for funding away from local authorities. "GME is what lies between Gaelic and extinction," he says.

Wilson and MacDonald stress that Gaelic is an apolitical issue and acknowledge the Government's central role in rescuing what was once the most widely spoken language in Scotland. A Conservative Scottish secretary of state, Malcolm Rifkind, (1986) set up and ring-fenced a Gaelic education budget (from April, Pounds 2.1 million a year) to which local authorities bid for grants each year. This covers, for example, 75 per cent of Edinburgh's Pounds 84,000 GME funding needs. But Gaelic nevertheless accounts for just 0.05 per cent of the city's education budget.

The Labour Party has made no promises to expand GME if it wins the election. It is committed only to "the maintenance of GME for the children of all parents who desire it''. But shadow secretary of state George Robertson promised at last weekend's Scottish Labour Party conference to launch a special initiative to stimulate language teaching, and to order "an immediate study into the value of Gaelic medium education to see if it can be an encouragement to the learning of other languages".

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