Leading politicians and educationists went on a mission to Dublin to study Irish-medium teaching. Neil Munro reports.
The provision of all-Gaelic schools in Scotland has been given a significant boost by the decision of Glasgow councillors to set up a 3-18 school in the city from 2006 (TESS, December 17, 2004).
But further developments may be in the pipeline after a visit by leading politicians and educationists to Dublin last month to study Irish-medium education.
Although the trip, led by Brian Wilson, the former Scottish Office Education Minister, was intended to look and learn, it became quickly apparent that, while Ireland has traditionally been held up as a model for Scotland, the latter also has much to teach the former.
Mr Wilson said: "We have to be careful to avoid the assumption that all in the Irish garden is wonderful. There are lessons they can learn from us, and we have to acknowledge that not everything in Ireland is as it should be."
Bruce Robertson, director of education in Highland, who was in the party, noted that, even in Ireland, where Irish-medium teaching outside the traditional Gaeltacht areas began in 1908, there are still problems: tougher requirements for schools to be set up, shortages of teachers, and a lack of suitable materials.
Mr Robertson said: "The greatest difference in Ireland, and indeed in Wales, is that there is a compulsory Gaelic language course for all pupils, thereby giving a solid foundation for Gaelic-medium education.
"It is something to which I would give very serious consideration in all secondary schools in Highland in traditional Gaelic-speaking areas, certainly through to S2 - if we had the teachers."
Murdo Macleod, director of education in the Western Isles, another visitor to Dublin, said geography was a major barrier "which does not make it easy for us to set up Gaelic-only secondary schools".
He added: "We also have the situation, which you do not have in urban areas, that all our secondary schools in S1-S2 are able to study Gaelic, in addition to English and FrenchGermanLatin. We therefore have provision in all our schools in respect of subject teaching in Gaelic.
"None of this precludes the possibility of the council taking a policy decision at some stage in respect of all-Gaelic schooling, in primary and secondary. The provision of significant capital support has been a key element in the establishment of the Glasgow school."
Mr Robertson is chairing a committee, set up by the Education Minister, investigating how ICT can help bring Gaelic-medium education to smaller and more remote schools. Again, he found, Ireland is not at the forefront of such work.
Progress in Ireland has nonetheless been been impressive. Outwith the Gaeltacht, where pupils are assumed to arrive in school with Gaelic (not always so), the number of Irish-medium primaries has increased over the past 30 years from 13 to 154; in secondaries, the figure has risen from five to 36.
All-Irish schools, or gaelscoileanna, outside the Gaeltacht have seen pupil numbers rise from 16,000 in 1990 to 30,500 by 2003 - although the secondary population represented in these years was only, respectively, 2,800 and 6,000.
Sean O Leidhinn, principal of Colaiste Eoin in Booterstown, County Dublin, makes no bones about the triumphs - and the challenges. A particular triumph is that, while he affects to ignore exam league tables, he emphasises that his school is 10th best in the country.
Mr O Leidhinn has no doubts about the reasons - parents have been instrumental in setting up schools such as his, so they have a stake in their future. Their support can be gauged by a recent sale of work having raised e30,000 in a day.
But, as in Scotland, the school has faced difficulties recruiting teachers, especially in science and business studies. Mr O Leidhinn acknowledges that his school has been able to survive only because former pupils have returned as teachers - a critical mass not yet available in Scotland. Of his 32 teachers, 12 are former pupils.
The factors behind the success of Irish-medium schools are functional as well as fashionable, according to Mr O Leidhinn. Schools get their grant only if they teach Irish, and teachers are paid up to e1,000 extra depending on the Irish content of their teaching. Teachers of the "language- rich subjects" such as history are paid a higher salary increment than those in, say, maths.
Mr Robertson has already proposed that a leaf should be taken out of this book, when he gave evidence on the Gaelic bill to the parliamentary education committee late last year.
But Mr O Leidhinn is also in no doubt that, as well as parents wanting to pass on the nation's culture, Irish is now "fashionable", and this has helped the growth of the gaelscoileanna. The mood of the times has, inevitably, spawned an all-Gaelic TV channel - run, as it happens, by two of Mr O Leidhinn's former pupils. "They favour their own," he says with a smile, as he explains the good employment prospects for his pupils.
As Mr Robertson noted, the availability of high-quality Irish-medium materials for schools is one area where Scottish Gaelic has stolen a march.
It was only last year that resources and materials were made available for those whose first language is Irish or who are being taught through Irish, according to Muireann Ni Mhorain, chief executive of the council which supports both the Gaeltacht and gaelscoileanna schools.
The shortage of suitable Gaelic textbooks is "dreadful", she says. The only one for final year primary pupils is in science; and they only exist for history, geography and science for the post-primary years, Ms Ni Mhorain said.
Mr O Leidhinn noted that availability is not the only issue. The best textbooks in history and in science are in English, he said, so the teachers at his school simply use them and translate them into Irish. Other textbooks in the language are also at the wrong level for many pupils.
"I saw one in geography and even I couldn't understand it," Mr O Leidhinn said.
Ms Ni Mhorain also criticised the state of teacher training for Irish-medium teachers. "Although Irish is compulsory up to the leaving certificate stage in schools, there is barely any training for teachers to teach through the medium of Irish," she said.
"They just happen to be teachers who happen to have a bit of Irish. And to get into teacher training, the level of Irish required really wouldn't be sufficient to allow you to have much of a conversation."
The result, Ms Ni Mhorain told the Scottish delegation, is a major dilemma for headteachers. "You have two candidates for a job: one is a brilliant teacher, knowledgeable about their subject, good interpersonal skills, but has no Irish; the other is a terrible teacher, not good with kids, but speaks beautiful Irish. Who do you appoint?"
But the major problem facing Irish, as with Gaelic Scotland, is the growing numbers of pupils whose first language is not Irish, according to a recent book on Gaelic-medium education in the British Isles. Helen O Murchu, a past president of the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages, wrote: "It is claimed that Ireland is now a pluralist country. This means linguistic and cultural pluralism. However, it is not clear whether this will enhance or detract from the position of the Irish language in the long term."
As Mr Robertson discovered at Colaise Eoin, "Mr O Leidhinn has to take on all-comers, including those pupils who arrive with no Irish at all". This includes children from refugee and overseas families who are keen to get their children into gaelscoileanna. The solution to date is that they are packed off to the Gaeltacht west of Ireland for total immersion sessions for a month, then receive extra classes in Irish when they return.
Ms Ni Mhorain described a "diverse situation in which parents are desperate to get their children into gaelscoileanna, while in the Gaeltacht many parents want them to be educated in English because it is the language of business and commerce."
This is the age-old dilemma for all minority languages, and one to which the Department of Education and Science in Dublin has tried to solve by decreeing that every child in Ireland should have a half-hour English lesson every day. "That has caused tension with the policy of many schools to have total immersion in Irish," Ms Ni Mhorain said.
Meanwhile, in Scotland all eyes will be on Glasgow - although another pioneering move will be taking place soon in Inverness with the opening of the first all-Gaelic primary at Central Primary in the city.
Stephen Purcell, education convener on Glasgow City Council, who was another member of the delegation to Dublin, said he intended to absorb some of the lessons learned from the trip, particularly the problems of providing suitable teaching resources.
"We have time in Glasgow to plan ahead for the opening of the Gaelic school in 2006," he told The TESS.
"One of the things which the visit may have kick-started in Scotland is greater collaboration on the provision of Gaelic-medium education, and I hope to have talks about this with colleagues in Highland, the Western Isles and elsewhere. It has taken Ireland 20 years to do that, so we can't expect it to happen overnight."