Boyd Robertson, the outgoing principal of Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, was born and raised on North Uist in a Gaelic-speaking household. But when he attended school in the mid 1950s, his teacher did not speak Gaelic; and in upper primary, his only exposure to the language was “reading boring material” at 3pm on a Friday afternoon.
Comparing his own experience with the opportunities for pupils to learn Gaelic today is “like night and day”, Robertson says. “We have come an extremely long way,” he adds. “No one would have dreamed in those days that we would have been looking at having three Gaelic schools in Glasgow.”
His comments reflect the enthusiasm expressed earlier this month by Allan MacDonald of Bòrd na Gàidhlig. The chair of the Gaelic development body claims that there is unprecedented demand for education in the language from families in towns and cities, even though the number taking exams remains tiny (see figures, opposite).
Robertson, who retired earlier this month, credits the determination of the parents who fought hard for Gaelic provision, as well as a handful of “enlightened councillors”, for prompting the shift.
“The concept of having a language as the medium of education in primary – as opposed to a subject in secondary – was totally novel in Scotland and met with considerable resistance at education officer level,” he recalls. “But a few councillors grasped the idea and ran with it, and all honour to them for doing so.”
Robertson – who started his career as a Gaelic teacher – was among those who campaigned to open the first Gaelic-medium school in Glasgow. The successful lobbying resulted in a Gaelic-medium unit opening at Sir John Maxwell Primary in 1985. Shortly after, another unit opened in Inverness, and the classes had a combined roll of 32.
Now, Glasgow has a 3-18 campus with close to 1,000 pupils and a Gaelic-medium primary school, with plans underway to create a third Gaelic-medium primary in the city next year.
Across Scotland last year, more than 5,600 pupils engaged in Gaelic-medium education (GME) from nursery through to secondary. To put that into context, the most recent national statistics, for 2017, show a total of about 689,000 pupils attending Scotland’s schools. Still, proponents of GME are in agreement: they have a success story, and it is about more than numbers. An understanding that education in Scotland is now taught in two core languages has been established at the “highest level of government”, says Jim Whannel, chair of the Bòrd na Gàidhlig learning committee.
But when the new Glasgow Gaelic primary opens next year, there will still be just six GME schools in Scotland – only one of which has a secondary department. Of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, fewer than half have GME primary or secondary education, with a similar number of councils offering Gaelic as a language in their schools.
Emma Holmes, who is studying for a doctorate in medieval Celtic studies, was one of the first people to test new legislation that allows parents to request Gaelic-medium primary education from their local authority (see box, below). Holmes’ bid to East Renfrewshire council was refused, despite her gaining the backing of almost 50 parents. She now argues that parents should be granted the right to GME – not just the right to request it.
Rob Dunbar, chair of Celtic and Scottish studies at the University of Edinburgh, agrees. He believes that an entitlement, contingent upon sufficient demand from parents, would “push things forward with a greater degree of urgency”. Dunbar adds: “There are structural problems, like teacher numbers and facilities and all sorts of financial barriers. But without a right and the consequences that flow from that – which is the possibility of successful challenge in court – these issues will not get seriously addressed. Without a bit of a stick, sometimes goodwill does not translate into action. It’s human nature.”
In the current context, however, Dunbar believes the focus must be on improving the transition of pupils from GME primaries into secondary. Gaelic immersion for most Scottish pupils ends when they reach secondary school, where at best they will be able to study the language and perhaps have a few subjects delivered in it – although innovative work is afoot to provide access to Gaelic-medium teachers remotely (see box, below right).
Dunbar says the limited secondary provision means that while pupils taught in Gaelic will get the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, ambitions for GME to reinvigorate the language are less likely to be realised.
Donalda McComb is headteacher of the all-through Glasgow Gaelic School, which started out with 33 pupils in its secondary department in 2006 and now has 340. Echoing Dunbar, she says a strategic plan for secondary GME needs to be put in place.
For now, the school has three subjects being delivered in English – maths, technological studies and music – because it struggles to recruit Gaelic-speaking teachers; this is despite good career prospects, with McComb firm in her belief that demand for GME will continue to outstrip supply.
She says: “When I first started, almost all the pupils’ families had Gaelic connections: the grandparents spoke Gaelic or the parents were Gaelic speakers themselves. Now, 80-85 per cent of our pupils don’t have Gaelic in the home. It’s a complete turnaround.”
McComb believes that having more places available for Gaelic education stimulates greater demand, fuelling even more need for teachers. “Getting teachers into the system has to be the focus,” she says. “All Gaelic-medium schools are too small because once the school is built, people come.”
Of course, there are plenty of doubters – albeit probably fewer in the education sector than among the general public – who complain that Scotland should be focusing more on reversing the downward trend in the uptake of European languages (see “Language exam entries are falling, but pourquoi?”, Tes Scotland, 17 August).
Would schools offering education via the medium of international languages be just as popular as Gaelic schools? Maybe, and Robertson says he would support their introduction, but he is clear that Gaelic is a special case. “If Gaelic is not taught in Scottish schools, it is not going to be taught anywhere,” he reasons. “It’s a different ball game. Gaelic is native to Scotland and has to be treated in a special way – and offered as widely as possible.”
A Scottish government spokesman says that local authorities have a duty to assess any requests made by parents of children under school age to provide Gaelic in their primary. “At a minimum, the authority must be satisfied there are parents of at least five children resident in the same assessment area and in the same preschool group who want to learn the language. Other considerations include the availability of teachers and cost factors.”
The spokesman says that guidance on Gaelic in secondary is clearly set out in the Statutory Guidance on Gaelic Education, published in 2017. He adds that bodies such as Education Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Stòrlann – which distributes and publishes Gaelic educational resources – have agreed to work together to increase the availability of Gaelic subjects at secondary.