Meagre funding for Gaelic learning speaks volumes

Former minister for language dismisses `tokenistic' efforts

Julia Horton

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A bid to double the number of Scottish pupils who are taught entirely in Gaelic has fallen prey to "hopeless tokenism", according to the original minister for the national language.

Brian Wilson, the former Labour MP and minister in the UK government for Scottish education and Gaelic, accused the SNP of lacking commitment to the cause, despite his successor, Dr Alasdair Allan, announcing an extra pound;50,000 to support the five-year campaign.

Government Gaelic agency Brd na Gidhlig said that "steady" progress had been made towards the target of doubling the number of P1 pupils in Gaelic medium education (GME) from 400 in 2012 to 800 by 2017. The agency predicted a rise to a figure "surpassing" 540 this year, yet its latest confirmed data shows the numbers have yet to reach 500.

Mr Wilson (pictured, left), who first proposed the right for all pupils to learn entirely in Gaelic in the 1980s, also dismissed a Scottish government consultation to enshrine that right in law as "too vague".

Reacting to Dr Allan's funding announcement last week, Mr Wilson said: "It's tokenism. There is no momentum whatsoever now. The figures tell the story - it has more or less plateaued. There are no significant new measures in the proposed bill. It's hopeless. It does not really move things forward in terms of establishing a right to GME."

It is nearly 20 years since Mr Wilson became the first ever minister for Gaelic in 1997.

His concerns came after warnings last month that the proposed bill could force authorities to break the law if they did not have enough trained GME staff to meet demand.

Responding to a government consultation on whether legislation should be introduced for councils to consider all parental requests for GME, Glasgow City Council's executive director of education, Maureen McKenna, was firmly against the idea.

She said: "We can't deliver 100 per cent GME secondary due to a lack of fluent specialist teachers.What would happen if the local authority was unable to secure fluent Gaelic speakers? Would the local authority be in breach of the legislation?"

John Macleod, the head of leading Gaelic charity An Comunn Gidhealach (ACG), also expressed concerns about statutory GME. The ACG president, who attacked authorities for "failing" to implement the 2005 Gaelic Language Act fully by promoting equal status with English, told TESS: "GME is developing very well in more populated areas but less so in the traditional heartland of the language. This is not just about Gaelic, it's about seeing the value of bilingual education. Fifty thousand pounds ought to make a difference, but there's never enough money."

He said he supported efforts to improve access to GME, but added: "Perhaps it's just not possible to have a standard right that would apply strictly to all areas.I think the details need to be sorted out."

The Scottish government has provided a fund of nearly pound;5 million each year since 2012 that councils can bid for to support Gaelic education. GME is now available at 59 primaries and 15 secondaries in 14 council areas.

The additional pound;50,000 funding was earmarked for the Western Isles, Dingwall and Tain - all in the Highlands - along with Perth and Stirling to expand existing GME from nurseries into primaries.

Ministers admitted that although the 0.1 per cent increase in Gaelic speakers under the age of 20 at the last census in 2011 was encouraging, the language was still in long-term decline.

A spokeswoman said the "urgent need" for more GME teachers was being addressed through a range of new courses.

Of some 50,000 teachers nationwide in 2013, only 257 in primaries were qualified to teach GME and only 177 of those were doing so. Just 96 of the 160 who could teach GME at secondary level did so.

Bob McGowan, chairman of Comann nam Prant, a parents' campaign group calling for students to have a legal right to GME, said: "The growth, success and vitality of GME schools have built an important momentum for GME and this must be maintained. Teacher supply issues must certainly be addressed, but not at the expense of back-pedalling on the demand for school places."

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Julia Horton

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