Stress is on keeping the language alive

24th April 2009 at 01:00
It is a 'nightmare' recruiting Gaelic-medium teachers, but Canada is lending a helping hand

Student teacher Meaghan O'Handley leans over a girl's shoulder and begins to explain in Gaelic how she should tackle the problem in her maths book. Meaghan has been learning Gaelic for the past eight years, but moving from conversational Gaelic to teaching in the language at Portree Primary on the Isle of Skye has been a challenge, she admits. New words, such as "add", "subtract" and "equals" have had to be acquired quickly.

Mairead, 8, a pupil in the P2-3 composite class where the student teacher has been working, is encouraging: although she doesn't know every word in the Gaelic language, she knows "most of it".

Her language skills have been the source of some fascination for pupils, since Meaghan is Canadian, says class teacher and depute head of Portree Primary, Flora MacDougall. "They love the fact that she has a Canadian accent in English, but speaks Gaelic. They have found the whole thing quite surprising."

Meaghan and Emily MacKinnon, another Canadian student teaching at the school, are on the cusp of graduating from teacher training at St Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. The six-week placement at Portree, where they arrived in mid-March, is their final "practicum".

It is common to spend this placement abroad, but they are the first students from the university to spend it teaching in Scotland in Gaelic. Highland Council hopes more students will follow in their footsteps; an even more fervent wish is that some will decide to stay.

Emily and Meaghan began learning Gaelic at high school, took Celtic studies as part of their undergraduate degrees at university, and have continued to study the language during their teacher training, as the first students to undertake the university's new Gaelic methods course.

Their interest in Scottish culture stems from their roots. Their ancestors were Scots who emigrated to Canada, landing on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island, following the Highland clearances.

Meaghan's family lives in Boisdale, which was named after the place of her ancestral roots - Lochboisdale in South Uist. Emily's family still lives on the same patch of land where her ancestors built their first home in the 1800s.

Both students, if asked their nationality, would describe themselves as Scottish, not Canadian. However, they have no immediate plans to settle in Scotland. Nova Scotia, where Scots make up the largest ethnic group, is also desperate for Gaelic teachers, they say. "Our grandparents spoke Gaelic but, in the 1950s and '60s, to speak Gaelic was not considered useful," says Meaghan. "Our parents can't speak it, but now there is a push to keep the language alive."

Emily adds: "In Cape Breton, where most Gaelic speakers live, Scottish culture is very strong - with the language, music and storytelling."

There has been much publicity in Canada surrounding their Scottish primary school placement, which has been fully funded by Nova Scotia's Office of Gaelic Affairs, and in future years they predict many more students will take up the Gaelic methods course and end up in Scotland. Some, they feel, are bound to stay. Even they feel torn.

"Because Portree is not a really big community we've got to know people and, of course, the staff, who have been brilliant," says Meaghan. "This has been the ideal place to be. I'm going to cry when I leave, I know it."

Headteacher John Finlayson sees the placement as an important first step, which has demonstrated the Canadians' language skills are up to scratch. "One or two extra bodies can make the difference between a school having a Gaelic-medium teacher and not," he says.

The placement was set up with the help of Ian Dutton, a former director of education in the Borders, who now acts as a consultant for a London-based teacher recruitment company.

"This first visit was to establish if the Canadian students were competent enough in Gaelic to be possible candidates for vacancies in the Highlands," says Mr Dutton. "It would seem they are, and everything is going according to plan."

Demand greater than the supply of teachers

The latest teacher census figures show there are 261 primary teachers trained to take Gaelic-medium classes and 139 registered to teach Gaelic as a secondary subject; but only 162 in primary and 79 in secondary actually teach through Gaelic.

Experts at Gaelic agency Bord na Gaidhlig estimate that Scotland needs to double the number of Gaelic-speaking teachers practising in schools, with year-on-year increases.

This year, only six new Gaelic-medium primary and four Gaelic-medium secondary teachers will enter the profession in Scotland. Next year, there will be 12 Gaelic-medium primary probationers and two secondary, both biology specialists.

Staff recruitment remains "a nightmare", says John Finlayson, headteacher of Portree Primary, whose Gaelic department caters for under 100 pupils, staffed by five full-time teachers. "Teacher recruitment is the biggest single issue in Gaelic-medium education," he says.

In the future, the demand for Gaelic-medium education teachers will grow even further. In Highland alone, there are plans for two Gaelic primaries, one in Portree and another in Fort William. The Bunsgoil Ghaidhlig Inbhir Nis, the Gaelic primary in Inverness, which opened in August 2007, is going to be "stuffed" by next year, predicts Donald MacNeill, Highland's Gaelic development manager. There are 112 pupils in the primary but more than 60 waiting in its nursery.

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