Return of the native tongue

20th January 2006 at 00:00
With 1,000 speakers a year being lost to Gaelic, urgent action is needed to save the language. Su Clark reports on plans for new Gaelic schools

Gaelic revivalists were clinking glasses well in advance of Hogmanay, due to a revelation from the Western Isles. At the end of 2005, the local authority revealed its "aspiration" to convert its primary education programme from English to its native language.

Within 15 years, the authority aims to deliver the entire primary curriculum in Gaelic, with Gaelic-speaking teachers using Gaelic materials and resources.

Meanwhile, in Glasgow, the first Gaelic secondary school will open this August, delivering as much of the curriculum in Gaelic as the severe shortage of Gaelic teachers will allow. In Highland, a school dedicated to Gaelic primary teaching is being built in Inverness to open in April 2007.

The council is also consulting on converting Sleat Primary on Skye to Gaelic medium, following a campaign by parents.

It appears the long campaign by officials, politicians, parents and vocal pro-Gaelic campaigners to reclaim Scotland's linguistic heritage is yielding results inconceivable a couple of decades ago. More Gaelic-only schools are on the horizon, plus a growing number of Gaelic-medium units are sprouting up in primary schools.

It is 20 years since the launch of the first Gaelic-medium classes in Inverness, but pupil numbers remain precariously low. Last year just 328 were in P1 Gaelic-medium classes, while the total in P1 to P7 was just over 2,000. The number of Gaelic learners in secondary schools (studying it just like any other language) was 2,513.

The latest national census, in 2001, revealed a steady decline in active Gaelic speakers of more than 1,000 each year.

"Even allowing for a contribution from Gaelic learning later in life, the implications of this imbalance are clear," says Graham Donaldson, the senior chief inspector of education, in his introduction to the HMIE report Improving Achievement in Gaelic, published in June.

Bruce Robertson, the director of education in Highland, is more direct. "If the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages is concerned, then we ought to be," he says. "The UK does not have a good history of trying to save lesser used languages. We should be doing more to save this ancient language. There is a real risk we could lose it within a generation."

However, the situation might not be as bleak as Mr Robertson would suggest.

"The census found that among younger age groups the numbers are stable,"

says Jim Whannel, the education adviser in Glasgow, with a remit for Gaelic. "There is no doubt this success is down to the slowly expanding provision of Gaelic teaching and its use in delivering all or part of the curriculum."

Fuelling this growth is a shift in the political heart of the country to a point where Gaelic culture and language are seen as worth saving. As of 2005, the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act protects the language; the Brd na G...idhlig is in place and overseeing the development of Gaelic and its teaching, and the annual Gaelic specific grants budget has been increased to almost pound;4 million for education.

This investment has stimulated a small renaissance. The idea that an authority could drop teaching in English was unimaginable 20 years ago.

Today, there are some confident enough to try.

Glasgow was given pound;250,000 by the Scottish Office to open Scotland's first exclusively Gaelic school in 1999 and has since seen its roll almost double. The number of Gaelic-medium units within primary schools rose to 61 in 2004 and there are now 21 local authorities who have grants to provide Gaelic language teaching units or to transport their children to other authorities that do.

Many of those units have growing rolls, as at Tollcross Primary in Edinburgh. Over the past 20 years, headteacher Kenneth Neal has seen the number of families in the school's city centre location plummet as big business has moved in, yet the roll has doubled. Almost half the pupils are in the Gaelic unit, bussed from across the city and outlying areas.

The attraction for parents, the majority of whom have no Gaelic, could be the desire for their children to have a Scottish identity, or it could be the perception of small class sizes and a more educationally privileged demographic.

"That might have been the case a few years ago," says Donalda McComb, the headteacher of Sgoil Gh...idhlig Ghlaschu, the Gaelic primary in Glasgow, who was recently appointed head of the new secondary school. "But our classes are the same size as other schools and our children come from all walks of life."

Mr Robertson also argues vigorously against the suggestion, yet Mr Whannel admits that Sgoil Gh...idhlig Ghlaschu is in the top 20 per cent of most affluent schools in Glasgow.

Other concerns, especially around the creation of stand-alone schools and the divisiveness it could create, are growing. As Mr Neal explains, it is unlikely that any child could enter a Gaelic-medium school much after P2.

"The only thing we can safely presume is that the Gaelic lobby has fulfilled the dream of an exclusive, publicly funded school," wrote Hugh Donnelly, a teacher at Hillpark Secondary, in TES Scotland (November 26, 2004) when Glasgow was proposing a Gaelic secondary school.

Even in the Western Isles, the bastion of Gaelic language, there are mumblings of resistance to a wholescale conversion to Gaelic. Not all residents are thrilled at the prospect of Gaelic-medium teaching in primary. In a survey of 328 parents, more than a quarter rejected such a move.

Still, the aspiration remains and from August the authority will begin a pilot in five of its 38 schools. Those who reject the change will be offered places at area schools rather than their local school and will be transported there by the authority.

"There will be an initial cost of the change," says Catriona Dunn, the assistant director of education, "but in the long term it shouldn't cost any more than English-medium teaching."

As far as the Western Isles is concerned, any extra costs are worthwhile for the benefits it will bring to the majority of its pupils, 89 per cent of whom have at least one parent who speaks Gaelic.

Immersion in a language at a school where everyone, from the janitor to the headteacher, speaks it all the time is considered crucial to successful acquisition. The pattern in Gaelic-medium provision is for pre-school up to P2P3 children to hear only Gaelic at school. After this, English is taught as a language and the skills developed in Gaelic are transferred.

Once the pupils move on to secondary school, the option of Gaelic-medium shrinks drastically, with only a limited number offering subjects in Gaelic. Even in the Western Isles, secondary education will remain in English for the foreseeable future.

"No one doubts the value of being brought up bilingual," says Mr Whannel.

"It makes acquisition of further languages easier and the evidence shows that it enhances cognitive skills."

While there may be the political will, the determination of the revivalists and even money, the growth of Gaelic-medium and Gaelic language teaching is still being stymied by two crucial elements: a lack of teachers and a dearth of quality teaching resources.

Investment in developing resources is leading to improvements, with such organisations at Storlann producing specific materials and the BBC launching a Gaelic digital channel. The new secondary school in Glasgow also has a remit to develop teaching materials and curriculum content, on and off the internet, that will be shared across Scotland.

The problem with teacher shortages is less easy to resolve and is the main reason why the Scottish Executive's target of increasing those educated through the Gaelic medium by 20 per cent by 2009 is so modest.

Linking pupils with teachers miles away is one option, such as the scheme in place in Plockton, Tain, Tobermory, Islay and Cumbernauld, where pupils are linked with Gillebride MacMillan, a native Gaelic speaker who now lives in Spain. However, Mrs McComb is facing the prospect of launching a Gaelic secondary school where many subjects will be taught in English, simply because there are no specialist Gaelic teachers available.

"We know it will take time to develop our staff," she says. "They will have to be good quality teachers first and foremost."

Recognition of the need to develop Gaelic teachers, especially in specialist subjects, led to the establishment of a Gaelic Medium Teachers'

Action Group last year, chaired by Matthew MacIver, chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland and chairman designate of Brd na G...idhlig. It made a series of recommendations in its report in November, all of which were accepted by Peter Peacock, the Education Minister. This included the recommendation to drop tuition fees for students doing teacher training part-time.

The report also called for developments within initial teacher training, one being the extension of Aberdeen's distance learning course to secondary teaching, which the university was already developing. The group also wants consideration given to launching teacher training courses within the Gaelic colleges, such as Sabhal Mr Ostaig on Skye.

The action group identified large numbers of Gaelic speakers within the existing teaching population who are teaching in English: 94 (37 per cent) in primaries and 68 (61 per cent) in secondaries. The question is how to encourage these individuals to swop to Gaelic medium teaching. Not all would want to. It can be quite isolating being the only Gaelic teacher at a large school.

"I teach history in English and I have found that it has helped me build relationships with the other teachers," says Flora McArthur, a history and Gaelic teacher at James Gillespie's High in Edinburgh, the secondary school for the Tollcross Gaelic unit. It recently became the first school in central Scotland to win the coveted Gaelic Debating Competition cup. "Being the only Gaelic teacher in school can be lonely," she says.

A second Gaelic teacher, Rachel Craig, recently joined the school, working two days a week there and two days with the council, developing its Gaelic policy.

"Rachel joining me has made it seem as if I have a totally new job; it is so invigorating," says Ms McArthur.

In theory, it could also free her to offer history through Gaelic.

"It is not something we are averse to," says Alex Wallace, the headteacher, "but it has cost and staffing implications. There are only a handful of Gaelic students coming to us from Tollcross.

"It is also very isolating to be the only teacher in the Gaelic unit."

Lack of clear lines of staff development and promotion is another explanation as to why teachers may be reluctant to switch. In Ireland, the decision to open smaller Gaelic-only units has led to more opportunities for teachers. In Scotland, most face a lifetime of getting no further than head of a unit, and being pigeon-holed in Gaelic-medium.

The action group acknowledged these difficulties and their recommendations called for more promotional opportunities for Gaelic teachers and improved professional development, with cross-authority provision.

While recent attention has been focused on Gaelic-medium, there is still the option of Gaelic language classes. Western Isles uses the 4 per cent flexibility in the S1S2 curriculum to provide Gaelic classes to all, while Highland is pursuing the extension of Gaelic language to its pupils.

Mr Robertson warns that focusing purely on children is dangerous. "At the end of the day, Gaelic-medium teaching won't be enough to save the language," he says. "What we need to do as a nation is encourage more learners, especially adult learners."

Supporting parents of pupils in the Gaelic units is one way to engage new learners, while helping them to help their children. But more needs to be done, says Mr Robertson; a lot more.

With death taking its toll on Gaelic speakers, the future of the language is still fragile.

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