Will education bill leave Gaelic on the Celtic fringe?

12th June 2015 at 01:00
Critics say reforms don't go far enough in reviving the language

Attempts to boost Gaelic education through new legislation will not be enough to help the language thrive in the country's schools, experts have warned.

A dearth of money and teachers, as well as a failure to include secondary education within the new legal framework, are the main roadblocks to what some have described as a potentially "significant" step forward for Gaelic education.

One of the most eye-catching aspects of the new education bill is its commitment to Gaelic. It places a duty on councils to assess the need for Gaelic-medium education (GME) in primary schools if a parent requests it, and requires local authorities to actively promote and support Gaelic learning and teaching in schools. However, although this has been welcomed by supporters, there is widespread concern that the proposals do not go far enough.

The difficulty of finding appropriately trained teachers would be the "biggest brake on development", according to primary school leaders' body the AHDS.

In a written submission to the Scottish Parliament's Education and Culture Committee, it said: "The only certainty is that the duty to promote Gaelic education will create cost. Any estimated uptake is no more than a guess at this stage."

The AHDS could "not see a rationale" for the bill enshrining a child's right to Gaelic education only in primary schools.

This view was shared by Comunn na Gidhlig (the Gaelic Language Society), whose chief executive Donald MacNeill said that GME in primary schools had enjoyed "remarkable" success in the past 30 years, but "much of the potential benefit of this is being lost as a result of the much less developed provision of GME in secondary schools".

He described the bill as "a welcome step in the right direction" but feared that a "postcode lottery" would emerge as some parts of Scotland struggled to meet the demand for Gaelic.

The 2011 census shows that the decline in Gaelic speakers has slowed: about 58,000 people aged 3 and over were noted as being able to speak the language, a fall of only 1,000 since 2001.

The Scottish government has set a target of doubling the number of P1 pupils in GME from 400 in 2012 to 800 in 2017.

Inaction issues

But education directors' body ADES told the parliamentary committee that a "significant shortage" of qualified GME staff remained, and local authorities body Cosla advised that a lack of teachers and funding could mean that demand from parents was not met. The education bill does not compel local authorities to provide Gaelic education even when parents ask for it.

Arthur Cormack, a Skye-based musician and supporter of the Gaelic language, said that more Gaelic units would have opened but for "inaction on the part of local authorities".

Dr Lindsay Dombrowski, an education lecturer at the University of the West of Scotland, agreed, and told the committee that the bill had to be strengthened and clarified to ensure that local authorities did not shirk their responsibilities to Gaelic education. She added that "the onus should not be placed on individual parents to demonstrate demand".

However, Gaelic quango Brd na Gidhlig was more positive, describing the bill as a "significant step forward". It said the changes would ensure that local authorities established a "clear process" when requests for Gaelic education were made, resulting in "parents having more awareness and understanding of the GME system and access to it for their children".

But the quango conceded that a "significant increase in resources is needed for real change".

Oral tradition

In the mid-18th century, monolingual Gaelic speakers formed nearly a quarter of the Scottish population.

In 2011, about 58,000 people (1.1 per cent of the population) aged 3 and over were able to speak Gaelic, a fall from 59,000 (1.2 per cent) in 2001.

The 2011 census shows a decrease in the proportion of people able to speak Gaelic in all age groups, apart from a very small increase among the under-20s.

According to Education Scotland, Gaelic-medium education is available to all children and young people in 14 of Scotland's 32 local authorities.

Education Scotland figures also show that GME is offered in about 60 primary schools and associated secondaries, including dedicated Gaelic-medium schools.

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