Glasgow has got it right on Gaelic

10th December 2004 at 00:00
Accusations of elitism and privilege over the city's plans are entirely misplaced, says Brian Wilson

As a parent who busses three children out of the Jordanhill catchment area each morning, I must seek exemption from Hugh Donnelly's allegation (Viewpoint, November 26) that supporters of Gaelic-medium education are engaged in a conspiracy to achieve "an exclusive and elitist school" in "the heart of the west end of Glasgow" - itself a suitably pejorative piece of geographical revisionism.

It is perfectly legitimate to insist that Gaelic-medium education must be compatible with principles of social and educational inclusivism. However, I don't know anyone involved in Gaelic-medium education who dissents from that objective, so Hugh Donnelly is setting up a bogus target at which to direct his fire. Simply repeating that something is "privileged", "elitist" or "exclusive" does not make it so.

The really depressing aspect of his article is the total inability to recognise genuine arguments in favour of taking Gaelic-medium education to its next logical stage, as characterised by the exciting proposal for 3-18 provision at the former Woodside School in leafy Anderston. That case is based entirely on arguments of widening access and improving educational outcomes - the kind of considerations which one might have hoped an Educational Institute of Scotland luminary would have some sympathy for.

Hugh Donnelly's fundamental error is to characterise a Gaelic-medium school as being anything other than "mainstream". He has it exactly the wrong way round. It is putting children into units, thereby creating minorities within schools, that can go against the principle of mainstreaming. In order to get Gaelic-medium education off the ground, that was a necessary approach but never an ideal one. In some parts of Scotland, it is still the best that Gaelic-medium is likely to achieve.

Where numbers allow, however, the truly mainstream solution is the one that Glasgow's Labour councillors have now approved - a genuinely comprehensive school open to all classes, creeds and ability levels, where the medium of instruction happens to be Gaelic. Sadly, it cannot be said that the same definition applies to all the comprehensive schools in Scotland where the medium of instruction is English. Perhaps there are more pressing, if less easy, targets for Mr Donnelly to focus on.

The merits of the "mainstream through Gaelic" approach have already been recognised in the primary sector. Does Mr Donnelly really believe that social inclusiveness was better served by the Gaelic unit at Sir John Maxwell School than by the current Glasgow Gaelic primary school? Was it "elitist" of Glasgow City Council or other education authorities to accept that, in order to satisfy parent demand, they should devote a whole primary school to Gaelic-medium education? Of course not.

My own response to the current consultation, like many others, went out of its way to emphasise that there was nothing other than appreciation for Hillpark's efforts on our children's behalf. The problems with the current provision are structural rather than, in any way, the responsibility of the school - but they do exist.

Gaelic-medium provision is limited to three subjects. Invidious curriculum choices not faced by other pupils are inevitable. In S1 and S2 - crucial years for language consolidation - only 13 per cent of instruction to Gaelic-medium pupils is through Gaelic. In the face of such considerations, there is a drop-out rate between primary and secondary of more than half the small number involved.

Under the 2000 Education Act, Gaelic-medium education is defined as a national priority. There is no point in giving it that status if there is no additional financial support available to fund new initiatives. Hugh Donnelly's description of Scottish Executive funding as a "bribe" which Glasgow cannot refuse is simply ridiculous. If Glasgow's education committee goes ahead with the Woodside plan, it will still have to put money in and will also lose a significant capital receipt.

Glasgow has always taken a lead on Gaelic provision. Since the 1940s, it was taught in four secondary schools. (Woodside, incidentally, was the "city centre" location, while Knightswood served the "west end".) Sir John Maxwell was the first Gaelic-medium primary unit and then Ashley Street became the first dedicated Gaelic primary in Scotland. Most recently, it is hugely to Glasgow's credit that it has been prepared to engage in the dialogue about Woodside and to understand the arguments.

Gaelic in Scotland transcends politics, class and religion. Loyalty to the language has been strongest among those who have least rather than those who have most. All of that will continue to be reflected in a Glasgow Gaelic campus and should be celebrated as a model rather than reviled as a threat to conformity.

Brian Wilson is Labour MP for Cunninghame North and a former Scottish education minister.

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