Tongue tied

Gaelic medium education is now a sensitive political issue. But how does it work? Seonag MacKinnon went to Tollcross in Edinburgh to find out

It seems like an ordinary early years classroom. Euan is reading from the Oxford Reading Tree scheme about Wilf and Wilma's first close encounter with a wedding. Except that it is not a wedding but a banais, and it is a froca that Wilma is wearing and a ceic that grandma is icing. Failte (welcome) to the world of Gaelic medium education (GME) at Tollcross Primary, Edinburgh.

Effie McArthur holds up a large Oxford Reading Tree book and slowly, pointing to items in the pictures, tells a tale of pirates from the Gaelic labels superimposed on the English text. The Primary 1 and 2 children crouched at her feet listen intently. Flora, the auxiliary, cradles Sorcha, who has hurt her head, calling her not "love'' but "a'ghraidh''. Then Mrs McArthur asks in Gaelic what the cross on a pirate map means.

"Treasure,'' shout several of the children, indicating comprehension but that this particular word is not in their vocabulary yet. Alasdair alone says "ionmhas'' and Mrs McArthur repeats it for the whole class.

This is the immersion stage at the expanding Gaelic unit of Tollcross, which currently comprises 75 children across a nursery and three composite classes. For two years the teacher and auxiliary speak only Gaelic to give the competent oral base from which the children can begin to read and write. Staff speak slowly, praise, point, repeat, use lots of gestures and say the Gaelic word or phrase which equals the English a child may have just used. Children who lapse into English are swiftly reminded not to speak Beurla.

The habit of using Gaelic becomes so ingrained that a non-Gaelic-speaking teacher who covered for a couple of hours in the Gaelic section was astonished to find some of the children could not help speaking to her in a tongue she could not understand. By the end of the two years pupils can communicate fluently in social interactions and in classroom routines on a range of topics. In Primary 3, reading and writing English is introduced but, as with every subject on the curriculum, it is explained and taught in Gaelic.

Cursa Matamataic by Oliver and Boyd is a Gaelic resource, but teachers frequently have to refer to English books, say for environmental studies or when they need an encyclopedia. They always discuss content in Gaelic, however.

But such is the ubiquity of English - on television and food labels, in comics, on posters, on the street, in the speech of pop stars - that it remains the language of the playground.

A two-day evaluation last year by Highland Council's Gaelic adviser, Donald-John MacLeod, seems to confirm the parents' confidence in the section, which started up nine years ago with just six pupils in an established inner-city primary. Mr MacLeod says: "It is an excellent school. Very successful with a very good atmosphere."

He attributes its success to the calibre of staff and to the commitment to teach all subjects in Gaelic. He also believes the existence of a nursery, good parental back-up, and the systematic teaching of aspects of Gaelic, such as idioms, plays a major part.

Little surprise, then, that in Primary 7 most pupils attain Level D in both Gaelic and English 5-14. Some children even attain E in English. Senior teacher Mona Wilson points out the irony of parents' initial fears that children will under-achieve in English: "Reading skills are easily transferable," she says. "When children start on English in Primary 3, they seem to fly. The bright child and the average child have no problems with GME. Those who have learning difficulties would have had them in mainstream anyway."

Gena MacLean, a colleague of Mona Wilson's, says spelling is often temporarily set back in the middle years, partly because Gaelic spelling is difficult, but they expect it to come right later. Parents' confidence can wobble at this intermediate stage, as they compare their child's skills with those of a neighbour's.

Headteacher Kenneth Neal, who also has a 185-strong mainstream section under his wing, says the Gaelic section benefits from some particularly bright children and good parental back-up. "We can't claim all the kudos," he says.

But he pays tribute to the achievements of his staff, who work in isolation, with no other Gaelic section in the area and therefore no access to knowledgeable support. Mr Neal speaks no Gaelic, and Edinburgh City Council has no trained Gaelic adviser.

Staff also have to cope with nothing like the range of resources - books, videos, tapes, broadcast programmes, software and project material - that are available to mainstream teachers. They have to carry out very much more preparation. One teacher personally translated 100 books last year, laboriously superimposing sticky labels of new text.

In addition, the majority of children have no Gaelic conversation at home, so working with beginners at the immersion stage is draining for the teaching staff.

Although the three classes have only around 18 pupils each, they are composite and teachers can be dealing with nine different levels of ability. Mrs Wilson, who is trained in learning support, is lobbying for funds to enable her to tutor individuals who fall behind or those who are particularly bright and need extension work.

Parent Aonghas MacNeacail energetically supports the teacher's call for Gaelic learning support and for better resource materials. "My son can't just get into a good book like Just William, a tape or video,'' he says. Not even Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl has been translated.

Native-speaking parents confess to sometimes shaking their heads over some of their children's expresssions. Because the children have relatively little contact with other speakers, what is almost a dialect is sometimes in evidence. "Tollcross Gaelic!" say some.

The school attracts visits from countless academics and politicians, and the Gaelic media are frequently there, drawn by the children's fluency. But the children are a tight-knit group. Auxiliary Flora MacPhail says she enjoys working in Primary 1 and 2 because "it's like a little family. They are lovely children and we know each other so well."

The children's closeness may be why, despite shared assemblies, mealtimes and breaks, few friendships straddle the mainstream and Gaelic classes. Although not hostile, the mainstream children refer to their opposite numbers as "The Gaelics'', and they in return are "The English", a complete misnomer since those in the latter groups are Scots with a rich mix of cultural backgrounds from all corners of the world.

Jessie Newton, whose daughter is in Gaelic Primary 7, says she was partly attracted to the school by the cultural mix offered by mainstream. "Small classes seem wonderful, but I wanted Rachel to have a broader experience, " she says. She says she would unreservedly recommend to other parents the section that seems so little known in Edinburgh.

Mrs Wilson says of her pupils: "From day one we make them feel special. They leave us self-assured; confident and gutsy, without being show-offs.'' In one (Gaelic) word, bragail.

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