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A move away from tradition;Curriculum

TESS staff conclude the subject-by-subject series on Higher Still with the classics and Gaelic

The proof of the pudding will be in the eating," is as confident a statement as Mary Anne Ferguson, head of Gaelic at Castlebay Community High in Barra, can make about the prospects for the language.

The proposals, produced by a group chaired by Ian Lamont, head of Alva Academy, will continue with the traditional two courses for native and learner speakers. But its report stresses the need for an integrated approach involving listening, talking and reading from foundation level upwards. Writing for learners is to be introduced as part of "extension skills" at General and Credit levels.

Finlay Cunningham, principal Gaelic teacher at Dingwall Academy, believes this approach offers something more for the less academic pupils as well as giving more credence to Scotvec provision in the upper secondary. He says he has already stopped offering the existing modules in Gaelic.

Mr Cunningham has a Higher class with four pupils and four adults. And, while he welcomes the prospect of a wider group of customers, he is worried that minority subjects will be forced to accept students from all five Higher Still levels. "A subject like Gaelic with small numbers in the upper school is not in a strong position to argue with management," Mr Cunningham says. "So I'm not sure it's good news for us."

Racheal McPherson, is head of department at Hillpark Secondary, the designated Gaelic-medium school for primary pupils who have studied through the language. She shares Mr Cunningham's worry that timetabling demands could impose unacceptable educational pressures on minority subjects. "It is feasible to have native and fluent speakers in one class," she says. "But with a much wider range of abilities, will this still be possible? It is not a new problem, but timetablers often forget that native and fluent speakers are two very different groups."

Such a distinction is academic in the case of Hillpark where the "fluent" speakers are basically learners, dependent on the school for their Gaelic.

Mrs Ferguson at Castlebay points to what she believes is a "grey area" between the provision for native and learner speakers. After seven years of primary education, she says, pupils arrive well ahead of the level set for S1 but are not good enough to be considered native speakers. Mrs Ferguson hopes the gap can be bridged by the Higher Still proposals and by Gaelic-medium provision in primary schools.

Mrs McPherson is also concerned at the optional nature of writing for Gaelic Higher learners. This is intended to emphasise the value of the language for communication and not, as Mr Lamont put it, "an arid discipline for academics" (TESS, September 1). His group also notes that the needs of the large number of adults learning the language must also be taken into account.

Mrs McPherson acknowledges that writing is fine as an optional extra at Standard grade, and that the Higher Still prospectus must follow on from the predecessor course.

But she is worried about the way in which higher education institutions will view a course which disregards writing. "Will they then insist on an Advanced Higher instead?"

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