Narrowing of secondary options hits Gaelic

Pupils being ‘lost to the language’ in senior secondary puts further pressure on teacher supply, says expert

Narrowing of secondary options hitting Gaelic

A leading light in Gaelic-medium education is calling for the Scottish government to investigate the impact of the narrowing of the curriculum in senior secondary.

He says teenagers are being “lost to the language” and that the teacher supply pipeline is “in danger of drying up” as a result.

Professor Boyd Robertson, who retired as principal of Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig earlier this month, told Tes Scotland in an exclusive interview that thanks to the introduction of the new qualifications, pupils in senior secondary were being forced to make “invidious choices” between subjects, and Gaelic was suffering.

The shortage of Gaelic-medium teachers has been well-reported but he said difficulties recruiting staff were being exacerbated because pupils were being forced to drop Gaelic before they attained any qualifications, meaning they could not apply for teacher education courses.

Professor Robertson started his career as a Gaelic teacher and was involved in the successful campaign for the first Gaelic-medium unit, which opened at Sir John Maxwell Primary School in Glasgow in the 1980s.

He said: “Recruitment of students to courses has become more difficult in the last couple of years and a main factor is the narrowing of the curriculum in schools. This goes beyond Gaelic – it affects other subjects as well, particularly languages. It puts children in a very difficult situation where they want to continue with a language, and with Gaelic, but are faced with dropping art or music or some other invidious choice to make that possible.

“It’s very worrying. We are building Gaelic-medium education through primary and the early years of secondary but then they are lost to the language in senior secondary. It is difficult for pupils doing a language to put it in abeyance and then pick it up again in a couple of years.”

Tes Scotland reported earlier this month the number of students taking French, German and Spanish fell by 5.2 per cent – across National 4-5, Higher and Advanced Higher – between 2017 and 2018.

The revelation followed work by a former secondary headteacher and professor of education at the University of Dundee, Jim Scott, that shows since the new Scottish school qualifications were introduced pupils have tended to take fewer subjects.

Professor Scott said in March in Tes Scotland that more than half of secondary schools now build their S4 timetables around six subjects – 54 per cent, up from 45 per cent in 2016-17

In Highland, there was a blanket policy that meant senior pupils studied just six subjects in S4, Professor Robertson said. This was having a disproportionate impact on Gaelic because of the concentration of Gaelic teaching in the area, he added.

Fewer than half of Scottish councils offer Gaelic-medium education, with a similar number offering Gaelic as a language.

Professor Robertson added: “We have a new teaching course at the college but if we don’t get the students coming through their Highers in the language we will not be able to recruit them and that will mean hopes of increasing provision of Gaelic-medium teachers will be dashed.

"The pipeline is in danger of drying up unless this issue is addressed. We need a research project looking at the effect of curricular choice on languages and in particular Gaelic.”

A Scottish government spokesman said a number of initiatives were in place to "attract, train and support more Gaelic-medium teachers" in order to promote the growth of Gaelic education. 

He added: "This includes new routes into Gaelic-medium (GM) teaching, part time and distance learning routes, transfer courses for English teachers to transfer to Gaelic teaching and bursaries for teachers available from Bòrd na Gàidhlig.  Comhairle nan Eilean Siar [Western Isles Council] is also supporting GM teachers with bursaries.”

Highland Council has been approached for comment.

For more on Gaelic in Scottish schools read tomorrow’s Tes Scotland. To subscribe, click here. This week's Tes Scotland magazine is available at all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here.

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