Highland pleads poverty on Gaelic-medium school

Angus Macdonald

In one of the first tests of new legislation on Gaelic, Highland councillors have heard a plea to ignore requests by parents for Gaelic-medium education. If such a facility opened in Nairn at the expense of other projects, a leading councillor warned, no Nairn councillor would be re-elected in 2007.

John Matheson, who chairs the council's resources committee, said that to respond now would be "the wrong time politically".

This is the first request to come before the council, following the passage of the Gaelic Language Act, which asks local authorities to consider such requests very seriously. The council's education committee has agreed to start a formal consultation process, following the request.

Bruce Robertson, director of education, said demand for pre-school Gaelic-medium education was feeding through into demand for primary school provision. The council's figures suggested that around 23 children would use Gaelic-medium education by year four, Mr Robertson said.

Mr Matheson had a number of reservations about the proposal, including the fact that discussions so far have been confined to officials and parents with no involvement by elected members. "By the time members become involved, it will have already built up a head of steam and there is no chance to stop the consultation process," he said.

His major concern was affordability. "My family comes from centuries of Gaelic tradition," Mr Matheson said. "Sorley MacLean's mother is a family member, as is Karen Matheson of Capercaillie."

But he warned: "Gaelic-medium education in primary school has little effect and you can't retain a language unless it is the language of the home and the community, and no community exists."

The council's policy was Gaelic-medium education within available resources, and it did not have the resources. "Politically, this is entirely the wrong time to do this," Mr Matheson said.

"Major projects scheduled for Nairn are going pear-shaped and there is an expectation that the council would do what it promised eight years ago.

There is a danger that Nairn will end up with no more than a primary school Gaelic-medium unit. If that is the case, serving councillors standing again in 2007 will have little hope of being re-elected."

But Mr Robertson maintained: "This is a formal request from parents and we are duty bound to respond to that."

Apart from the new language act, councils also had obligations under the 2000 education act. The consultation paper would be clear on resources, he said, especially staffing. But 75 per cent of the costs would be covered by the special grants for Gaelic from the Scottish Executive.

Michael Foxley, the council's vice-convener , said: "These children would have to be educated in any case through the medium of English, if Gaelic was not available, so to that extent the costs will be the same. The children have to be taught and it is likely that the extra costs will be covered by the grant.

"Councillor Matheson talks about timing. It never seems to be the appropriate timing. The problem is that when we do something to try to preserve Gaelic, it is nearly always too late."

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Angus Macdonald

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