Laying a false trail on the Mound

13th October 2000 at 01:00
SO THE major preoccupation of our new parliamentary season is to be that urgent national priority, the abolition of fox-hunting. Is this the face of the next instalment of politically correct pantomime from the Mound? It somewhat strains credulity, after last year's preoccupation with Section 28.

What is on offer for education? One key policy objective, lacking somewhat in imagination and passion, relates to young people leaving local authority care. It is piously hoped that all these vulnerable and voteless weans will achieve at least an English and maths Standard grade by the year of grace 2003. How many on the Mound would be content with such a lowly aim for their child?

But to my main topic: the future of Gaelic-medium education. The debate is dominated by the status of the language, and the growing confusion in the Executive about whether it should have "secure status" and "equal validity". Meanwhile the decline continues remorselessly: every year on Skye four Gaelic speakers die, and one is born. The Executive's own task force points out that the 2,000 children now in Gaelic-medium education need to be increased fivefold to maintain numbers at present levels - let alone reverse the decline.

I once attended a conference on Celtic languages in Stornoway. Delegates came from Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. A senior Welsh educationist lamented that despite annual expenditure of pound;20 million, despite wide usage of the language, and despite the best efforts of pressure groups, resourcing Welsh language was pouring water into a bucket with a hole.

Playgroups and primary schools play their part - until international teen 'n' telly culture takes over. It's not until these young people buy their own pram and carrycot that they begin to think nostalgically about roots - and the need for Welsh playgroups.

Then ther is that long-standing dilemma in Gaelic-medium secondary schools. Given two applicants for a history job, do you appoint the better historian - or the one who shines bilingually?

Two outsize difficulties bedevil the efforts of the Scottish Gaelic lobby. First, Scots are likely to lag even behind the English in foreign language skills. This summer's Nuffield Foundation report suggests bold measures to encourage foreign language uptake among English pupils and adult learners. The parallel Scottish Action Group on Languages was set up a year ago when HMI warned that modern language standards were slipping. This group sees fewer problems, and suggests merely focusing on the role of information technology.

There is certainly a shortage of modern language - and Gaelic - teachers: but we're an insular people. Who will motivate teachers or learners?

The late David Semple, Lothian's education director, used to puzzle over continuing lack of pupil interest, despite the region's best efforts at installing language labs.

The second difficulty is natural inertia: in Scotland, the wha's like us syndrome. We don't need to exert ourselves to speak in tongues, do we? Look at the growing worldwide interest in learning English. The evidence is all around. France has announced that its five-year-olds will start a foreign language, mostly English. Six-year-olds in Germany are to learn English by decree of Chancellor Gerhard Schroder.

Despite the Indian Government's efforts to "Hinduise" the curriculum, a survey carried out by Lucknow University shows that pupils would rather learn English. By contrast, students see their own language as dull, boring, sad and above all incomprehensible.

It would be hard to find a way of creating a widespread demand for living Gaelic. But anything else is whistling in the wind.

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