Key strategy will be to boost teacher numbers

When Rosemary Ward was growing up on South Uist in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was not "cool" to speak Gaelic. There was "little or no" Gaelic in the primary classroom but it was quite different in the playground. "As children we spoke Gaelic all the time," she recalls.

The language of play and the community was Gaelic and as a non-native speaker she picked it up, eventually expanding her use of the language at the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway.

Mrs Ward, aged 44, is Scotland's first Gaelic education manager, employed by the Inverness-based Bord na Gaidhlig, or Gaelic Board, and is well aware of the challenges facing any development of the language, having spent the majority of her working career in Argyll and Bute, some of it initiating Gaelic learning in primaries. Latterly, she has been a quality improvement officer.

She takes over her post as local authorities and national agencies this week began to digest the first draft strategy for Gaelic (above).

"Gaelic education has probably suffered from its own success," Mrs Ward explains. "It has mushroomed at such a rate that the grass roots development wasn't there. There are not enough teachers and in Highland this session Gaelic will not go ahead in two primaries because they do not have the teaching staff."

It is 20 years since Gaelic-medium education (GME) emerged as a feature of Scottish education, but only now is the political backing evident following the advent of the Holyrood parliament and its commitment to the language. A key focus of new strategies will be on teacher recruitment.

The latest figures show there are 255 primary teachers trained to take Gaelic-medium classes and 124 registered to teach Gaelic as a secondary subject. But only 156 teachers in primary are actually teaching through Gaelic and only 52 in secondary. Eleven new Gaelic-medium teachers begin this month and two in secondary.

Mrs Ward believes teacher numbers need to double with year on year increases, especially as more than 40 per cent of Gaelic-medium teachers are aged between 45 and 60. With that in mind, she will work with Angela Gillies, Bord na Gaidhlig's first teacher recruitment officer, to press home to pupils and students that they have a future in teaching and in teaching through Gaelic.

Mrs Ward will work with the Scottish Executive, local authorities and partner agencies to devise co-ordinated approaches to Gaelic learning across Scotland now that all councils must think through precisely how they are going to offer services to parents.

Gaelic learning can provoke strong local hostilities, as evidenced by the recent furore at Morar in the West Highlands. Some parents wanted the primary there to become wholly Gaelic, even if that meant excluding other local children. Others wanted it to retain its English tongue with GME.

Similar wrangles at Sleat on Skye and in the Western Isles have surfaced.

Mrs Ward hopes better planning and liaison will avoid future disputes.

Among other plans, she wants to expand the Gaelic Learners in Primary School programme - which she helped devise - beyond the 11 participating authorities, since it is widely acknowledged that the GME route alone will not be enough to address language decline. Already more than 5,400 primary pupils are taking Gaelic as a second language, compared to 2,068 taking the Gaelic-medium route in 61 primaries.

"This is not just a monitoring agenda, it's building for growth," Mrs Ward insists.

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