Gaelic puts up the barriers in Glasgow

26th November 2004 at 00:00
Councillors should spurn the Executive's 'bribe' and keep provision within the mainstream, says Hugh Donnelly.

The future of Gaelic-medium education is presently under review by Glasgow City Council. The preferred option is to establish an all-through 3-18 separate, exclusive and elitist Gaelic-medium school on the west end Woodside campus at a capital cost of pound;3.5 million to the taxpayer, and then further revenue funding for whatever it takes in years to come.

In these days of inclusion and diversity, one may wonder why this separate and exclusive provision is to be established in Glasgow for a privileged minority group who may speak, or have some identity with, the Gaelic language. You may conclude that a well-connected minority, with strong influences in the media and political establishment, has successfully lobbied and secured a centrally funded, separate and exclusive educational facility in the heart of the west end in Glasgow. You may well be right.

The preferred option in the consultation is to further underline the separateness and exclusivity of Gaelic education by closing the successful unit in Hillpark Secondary on the south side of Glasgow, established in 1987.

It would seem that key Scottish Executive policies such as social inclusion, establishing units as centres of excellence as part of the mainstream, a commitment to comprehensive education and a presumption of mainstreaming do not apply to aspiring Gaelic speakers. Indeed, the only thing we can safely presume is that the Gaelic lobby has fulfilled the dream of an exclusive, publicly funded school.

The second option would be to continue with the successful and inclusive model of the existing unit in Hillpark Secondary. But it is no secret that an element of the Gaelic lobby has always been rather ambivalent about this provision, despite the educational advantages, additional funding and generous staffing afforded it. This is unfortunate, given the success of the unit and the testimony of the overwhelming majority of parents and students.

The preferred option being encouraged by the Executive to create an elitist, separate and culturally distinctive school should be rejected. It is important that the substantial extra expenditure remains a part of mainstream provision in Glasgow. This would be seen as equitable and justified in the eyes of the whole community.

One of the ironies is that, against the background of this proposed handsome and substantial investment, Glasgow schools are having to decide on 1 per cent budget cuts; in the case of Hillpark Secondary, this amounts to pound;35,000 which is a lot of books.

Gaelic secondary provision should remain at Hillpark where there is also the facility to accommodate extra Gaelic students. This would build on the present, successful model which is comprehensive and socially inclusive and is based on the model of centres of excellence in dance, music and sport witnessed elsewhere in Glasgow and beyond.

Gaelic-medium education should be supported and should have the support of all the community. But, while an all-Gaelic school will benefit some families in the short term, in the longer term it will undermine Gaelic-medium education as it will be seen as something separate and culturally exclusive.

Glasgow schools significantly underperform due to the lack of social mix.

To further exclude Gaelic pupils from the mainstream would exacerbate the situation. Certainly Hillpark, and its Gaelic pupils, has benefited from the social mix. This has also served to raise attainment due to the higher socio-economic weighting, an important factor in educational achievement, of the Gaelic cohort. The decision to separate Gaelic education from the mainstream is socially exclusive and does a disservice to all pupils in Glasgow, particularly in the precedent it sets for further apartheid among other groups.

The decision of the Executive to make millions of pound of funding available only in the event of councillors opting for the one preferred option makes it politically difficult for the council to reject any other option. It undermines the ability of the council to scrutinise democratically the merit of this proposal in all of its aspects, including the impact on education as a whole in Glasgow.

Opinion expressed at the Hillpark consultation was unanimously against the Executive's preferred option. Many also believed that the decision to accept the Executive's policy was a formality in light of the proposed financial framework. It will popularly be seen as a bribe.

In a social and political context where religious, sectarian and racial barriers should be brought down, yet where differences are celebrated, specialist provision within mainstream schools is the model to promote.

Hugh Donnelly is a teacher at Hillpark Secondary and a member of the education committee of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity.

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