THE first major probe into bilingual education in Scotland shows pupils are not disadvantaged by learning through two languages.
Attainment of Gaelic-medium primary pupils at least kept pace with that of their counterparts and matched the 5-14 targets for Gaelic, according to the study carried out jointly by Stirling University, the Scottish Council for Research in Education and Leirsinn, the Gaelic research centre.
The results prompted an immediate call from Alasdair Morrison, Minister for the Highlands and Islands and Gaelic, for action to step up Gaelic-medium education. Scottish Executive funding is already increasing from pound;2.4 million to pound;2.6 million next year. The first all-Gaelic primary opened its doors in Glasgow two weeks ago.
"This report shows that pupils benefit from Gaelic-medium education and they gain the advantages of being fluent in two languages and two cultures," Mr Morrison said. "In the modern world of ever-changing boundaries and job opportunities, that should be an advantage."
The report, based on findings in the 34 primaries that offer Gaelic-medium education to primary 7, shows Gaelic-medium pupils suffered no disadvantage in English and maths at primary 5 and primary 7.
Results from the Assessment of Achievement Programme (AAP) tests indicate that Gaelic-medium pupils actually do better in both English and maths but perform less well in science by the end of primary school.
Far from their proficiency in English suffering, a major concern before the first Gaelic-medium classes started in 1984, it was the pupils' attainment in Gaelic which was found to be below their English scores by P7. The researchers believe this points to the need to reinforce Gaelic writing in particular.
The two-language approach also appears to have boosted overall performance and the schools did better than the national average in AAP results in science and maths and equalled it in English.
The researchers suggest two conclusions. "The weaker conclusion is that the performance of Gaelic-medium and English-
medium pupils is at a similar level but that from subject to subject there is variation in which of the two actually does better.
"The stronger conclusion is that the Gaelic-medium pupils generally perform better than their English-medium counterparts but that science is one exception to this."
The report also points, however, to differences which may have contributed to the results. The "poverty index", for example, shows only 6 per cent of Gaelic-medium pupils were entitled to free meals compared with 19 per cent of English-medium pupils; the contrast in the Western Isles was 3 per cent against 17 per cent.
A survey of headteachers also suggests that parents who opt for Gaelic-medium schooling are more educationally and politically aware than others, showing what the report calls "a powerful prior commitment" to Gaelic.
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* The researchers also surveyed the views of 224 parents which confirmed the conclusion that most are a highly unusually group.
They were not only strong believers in the educational advantages of bilingualism but highly committed to the wider interests of the language. Parents also praised teachers not only for their classroom competence but because they, too, were said to care passionately about the future of Gaelic.
But there was concern about teacher supply, support for teachers and continuity into secondary.