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Make it a priority to get a grip on Gaelic

As the Executive unveils its plans for the language, fundamental issues must be tackled, says Matthew MacIver

Gaelic-medium education has been one of the success stories of recent Scottish education. About 2,000 pupils are now involved in units and there has been a steady increase in uptake across the country. The latest figures from Strathclyde University suggest that the growth continues. During this past session, 339 pupils enrolled in primary 1 compared with 229 the previous year. The transition from primary to secondary also shows encouraging signs of growth. A total of 149 of the 232 pupils who left primary school proceeded to Gaelic-medium education at secondary level.

The pressure on the secondary sector is illustrated by the fact that four additional secondary schools have been obliged to provide Gaelic-medium education this session. Gaelic-medium units are securely established across Scotland. The evaluation of learning and teaching in these units has been very positive and pupils not only develop Gaelic language competence but also achieve at least the standards of their age group in the English-medium curriculum.

Much, however, still needs to be done including a critical examination of how developments in the primary sector can be carried forward into secondary schools. That is an area which has been under-resourced as well as under-researched. In particular, the shortage of teachers, which is already a seemingly intractable problem in primary schools, could become even more critical in secondary schools if pupils educated in the primary sector continue to be educated through the medium of Gaelic at secondary level.

The shortage will not be solved simply by changing the way that Gaelic-medium teachers are trained. There will require to be a national recruitment strategy. Gaelic itself will need to have status as a language to attract both new recruits and existing teachers from other domains of the school curriculum. Teachers will have to feel secure that there is a career progression within Gaelic-medium education. Above all, there will have to be confidence in the Gaelic community itself that there is and ought to be a future for its language along with a belief across Scotland as a whole that, like the Scots language, it is a necessary element of a national culture, irrespective of whether or not it is relevant to the individual.

There are, however, more fundamental issues to be resolved. It seems likely that Gaelic-medium education will remain a peripheral educational issue until it comes within the overall remit of the Minister for Education and Young People. The way that the ministerial portfolio with regard to Gaelic has developed does appear to be somewhat haphazard. I am very pleased that it presently lies with the minister, Peter Peacock, but that does not actually mean that Gaelic-medium education lies within the mainstream remit. In a world where Gaelic-medium education is seen as one of the factors which will impact on the survival of the language, that simply does not make sense.

That weakness has long been recognised by Gaelic organisations, for example Comunn na Gaidhlig (CNAG), which have lobbied consistently for the situation to be changed. Professor Sally Brown of Stirling University has also argued recently that "there is an urgent priority for Gaelic-medium education to become an explicit responsibility within the mainstream remit for education".

Other issues need to be explained. Where, for example, does the role of HM Inspectorate of Education lie? There is only one Gaelic HMI in Scotland and he is a secondary school specialist. There is no Gaelic HMI specialist in the primary sector where all the developments in Gaelic-medium education of the past 30 years have taken place. That situation does not inspire confidence.

Since the publication of the Macpherson report in 2000 and the Meek report in 2002, there is an assumption that the new Bord na Gaidhlig will solve many of these problems. It would be unsafe to make that assumption. The Bord will be financed directly by the Scottish Executive and so it will have to be one of the Bord's main priorities to impress on people that it can be independent of government, that it can speak with an independent voice, that it can make recommendations that are not necessarily sympathetic to government thinking and that it will support local authority initiatives.

Despite these reservations, the progress made in the past 20 years leaves a sense of optimism. Educationally, exciting steps have been taken. I would now like to think that in the next year under the Bord's leadership we will see the emergence of a strategy that will be more radical than anything we have yet seen.

Any such strategy should address the place of Gaelic-medium education within the education system. Should it be within the remit of the Minister for Education or remain on the periphery? It should evaluate the way specific grants are allocated for Gaelic-medium education. Why, for example, are there no published criteria? Is this the best way of resourcing Gaelic-medium education?

It should certainly look at the implications for teacher education of the new course being prepared by Strathclyde University and the University of the Highlands and Islands Millennium Institute. Should teacher education be moved away from the central belt as we explore different ways of delivering courses?

Above all, such a plan will need to bring a clear sense of direction. To some extent that focus may need to come from within the system itself. The need for HMI to have a specialist in pre-school and primary GME development is glaringly obvious. I have also found it strange that Gaelic-medium teachers have never formed some kind of organisation that articulated teaching needs and influenced policy. The need for such a body is again quite clear.

It is important, however, that the community itself is involved in a new plan. Schools on their own are not the key agents for developing a language. What is just as important, if not more so, is the community foundation for language. A language will only survive if it is an integral part of a living community that respects it and uses it. That is why any plan should examine carefully the need for creating a new national post in lifelong learning in Gaelic with a specific remit to set up Gaelic learning centres throughout Scotland.

These points would serve, I think, as a starter. But if we are to accept the premise that Gaelic-medium education is one of the essential building blocks for saving Gaelic then a new agenda must emerge quickly. That's the challenge for all those who are involved in ensuring that Gaelic is stronger at the end of this century than it was at the beginning.

Matthew MacIver is chief executiveregistrar of the General Teaching Council for Scotland but writes here in a personal capacity. This is an edited version of a recent lecture at the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University.

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