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Gaelic's Glasgow gateway

Ministers put the final piece of the jigsaw in place for Gaelic-medium education last week with the announcement that it will help fund a pound;4 million all-Gaelic secondary school in Glasgow.

But the ambition is intended to go wider, with the school acting as a hub to ensure specialist subject teaching is available throughout Scotland in a "virtual Gaelic-medium secondary network".

Peter Peacock, Education Minister, who came bearing gifts to the inaugural conference of Bord na Gaidhlig in Nairn, returned from his recent visit to New Zealand more convinced than ever that the use of modern technology "holds the key" to bringing secondary education in minority languages to more people, countering teacher shortages and small pupil numbers in particular subjects.

But his talks with officials from New Zealand's Maori Language Commission also left Mr Peacock with a strong impression that "schools cannot do it all". Despite the strong political clout which Maori enjoy in New Zealand, the commission's officials told the minister that families and communities must "cherish" their language if it is to have any hope of survival.

The accent in Scotland last week, however, was firmly on the advantages of Gaelic-medium secondary education, which the Scottish Executive admits "varies greatly" throughout Scotland.

Fifteen secondaries teach subjects through Gaelic but provision is often nominal. Language campaigners have long argued that the major expansion in Gaelic-medium pre-school and primary education over the past 20 years was being put at risk by weaknesses at secondary level. Pupil numbers in Gaelic-medium classes in all sectors now stand at 2,879.

Mr Peacock also announced that the pound;3.1 million paid in specific grants for Gaelic education will be increased by pound;250,000 for secondary education.

The package was welcomed as "a major step forward" by Duncan Ferguson, chairman of Bord na Gaidhlig, who felt it might stimulate more teachers to consider careers in Gaelic.

Despite last week's revelation that only three students have applied for the new distance learning course in Gaelic teaching at Lews Castle College in Stornoway, Mr Ferguson, rector of Plockton High in Ross-shire, remains upbeat: "If teachers are convinced there are going to be schools of this kind with more certain career opportunities, it will stimulate interest among potential teachers."

Students could now have more confidence in the path they prefer to take.

"At present, they have to decide whether they want to teach history through the medium of Gaelic or English, and that puts a lot of pressure on students. Expansion at secondary level will also add to the number of promoted posts and that will stimulate interest as well. It will open things up."

Mr Ferguson said that, while teacher shortages remain a problem, it has been easier to recruit in the central belt than in the outlying areas of the Gaelic heartland. It is possible to work in Glasgow but live in Falkirk or Ayrshire, he said, a flexibility not often available in remoter communities where housing can be a problem.

The new Glasgow school will be situated in the former Woodside Secondary in the city, which has been mothballed since its closure in 1999. The city council will incur pound;3.5 million in capital costs, to which the Executive will contribute pound;2.75 million.

It is planned that the school will be built up gradually, beginning with pre-school and 5-14 education followed by a year-on-year development into a full six-year school. The council's existing nursery would transfer to Woodside.

It will continue to operate the rest of its Gaelic provision - three nursery units, the Glasgow Gaelic school which provides nursery and primary education and the unit at Hillpark Secondary which, along with the full nursery, provide a total of 330 places.

The precise timetable will depend on the council's examination of the financial details, Steven Purcell, Glasgow's education convener, made clear.

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