Gaelic education: is it effective?

Written by Jenni Davidson on 6 December 2018 in Inside Politics

Gaelic-medium education is crucial to revitalise the language but there are many challenges in delivery 

Image credit: Bord na Gaidhlig

“Teachers in Gaelic medium are exceptional because they have to instil this language that will be new to most pupils,” Donalda McComb, headteacher of Sgoil Ghàidhlig Ghlaschu in Glasgow, tells Holyrood.

“The experience [the children have] had in the nursery, a Gaelic nursery, will help give a baseline, but they’ll still go through processes for language learning where a lot of it is understanding before they’re actually speaking it.”

In Gaelic-medium education, children are fully immersed, taught solely through Gaelic, in primary one and two. English literacy is then introduced during primary three or four, with elements of Gaelic and English taught throughout the rest of the primary years.

Sgoil Ghàidhlig Ghlaschu (SGG) is currently the biggest provider of Gaelic-medium education (GME) in Scotland and the only end-to-end Gaelic school delivering nursery, primary and secondary education through the medium of Gaelic. McComb has more than 30 years’ experience in Gaelic-medium teaching, which began in Glasgow and Inverness in 1985 with 24 pupils, and now sees around 5,600 children being educated in Gaelic in 13 local authority areas.

In that time, the profile of the pupils has changed significantly, from most being the children of Gaelic speakers to now a majority of children coming from non-Gaelic-speaking households.

This in itself presents challenges. At one end, some children arrive at school having been exposed to Gaelic at home and been through croileagan (Gaelic toddler group) and sgoil àraich (nursery), while others have not heard a word of Gaelic before they start.

This year, SGG is piloting two separate classes, one for children with a background in Gaelic and another for those with no Gaelic. The school has also brought in play-based learning in primary one, because the school was finding that some children “weren’t ready for that more formal side of things”.

This is already used in Bun-Sgoil Taobh na Pàirce in Edinburgh. Anne MacPhail, headteacher there, says the play-based approach works well because it means the teachers have opportunities to take small groups of children, work with them and encourage them to “become confident in trying Gaelic”.

Gaelic-medium education is considered a success story and the benefits of it, and its encouragement of bilingual competency in general, have been well publicised. Research shows it provides improved cognitive development and pupils going through GME perform at least as well, if not better, in English than their monolingual peers. Academically, for example, Sgoil Ghàidhlig Ghlaschu has the highest attainment in the city, with around half of sixth years achieving five or more Highers.

There are plans to expand GME as part of a drive to secure the future of the language. The Scottish Government’s Gaelic language plan aims to double the intake into GME primary to 800 and increase the range of subjects taught in Gaelic at secondary, while expansion of GME has been among Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s key priorities in successive national Gaelic language plans.

But there are serious challenges. Firstly, in achieving the aim of Gaelic-medium education creating a new generation of Gaelic speakers – with much of the focus of discourse around GME levels of attainment in general, particularly in English, rather than on levels of attainment in Gaelic – and secondly, the needs that go with the planned expansion, given a serious shortage of Gaelic teachers and other resources to meet existing and future demand.

“There’s definitely a tension between those two things,” says Professor Wilson McLeod of the Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the issue of selling GME for its high educational attainment versus the purpose of producing a new generation of Gaelic speakers, noting that research suggests that parents put their children in GME for a “mix of reasons”.

“People are bringing lots of angles there. But very often there’s a feeling that Gaelic, it’s a good education, it’s a strong and positive parent community. There’s a lot of – it’s an anecdotal finding, I think, but it comes through strongly in the research – that kids in Gaelic medium have a self-confidence to them and a positive outlook and so on.

“And these are all things that are highly valued, but they don’t necessarily connect to language use, language transmission, a high degree of fluency and ability in Gaelic, so there are tensions between these motivations.”

McComb says that she would expect pupils to be “quite fluent in their conversations” by about primary four or five. She adds that “by primary seven, they’ll confidently stand up and use their Gaelic in various assemblies and things like that and then there’s a period of time in the secondary when they just don’t want to, second year, I think, mostly, but then they come back to it again as they progress to the senior phase.

“But it has to be said that the accent that they have here is a Glasgow accent, a Gaelic Glasgow accent, and you can tell that they are learners, but equally, though, some of them are able to use the vocabulary in a fluent fashion that would be comparable with people from the islands.”

The focus on much of the academic research, like the promotion of GME, has been on the advantages of bilingualism, rather than on the level of attainment or use of Gaelic itself.

“I think it’s probably true that for a long time there’s been a concern about the fluency levels and ability levels coming in,” says McLeod.

“But this is very much in line with international research on bilingual education that particularly for children who aren’t connected to a language community in terms of daily contact and use, that they tend to have strong skills in some areas, particularly what we call receptive skills, so reading and listening as opposed to speaking and writing.

“And those kind of patterns would tend to, I think, come through in Gaelic-medium education, although we need a lot more research on that.”

Children in GME tend not to use Gaelic among themselves or in many contexts outside the classroom and international research on immersion suggests that they will not become fully fluent speakers by immersion alone, without some form of home or community use.

McComb says she tells parents they must provide other contexts outside of school for children to hear Gaelic.

“We say to parents, we’re a great school, great opportunities for your child, but you need to normalise the language. It can’t just be seen as a school thing. You’ve got to expose them to as much as you can outside of school. So if you’re making a commitment here…

“And what we’re finding is… you can tell the children who are not getting anything outside of school. And that in itself will be a challenge as they move through, and when they leave primary and into the secondary where there’s more terminology and the specific language for the specific subjects there.”

“It is very much about the whole family engaging with the language,” says MacPhail.

“There’s strong evidence for a long time that children in Gaelic medium education don’t make active use in informal contexts,” says McLeod.

“One of the things that’s more difficult, and this is where it gets difficult in educational terms, is the idea of being linguistically equipped to do it, that the language of the classroom is not the language that you would necessarily use to play with your friends, whether in terms of being colloquial, all sorts of different ranges of use, so building up these contexts for social use of the language is very important, and there aren’t nearly enough of them.

“There’s some very good initiatives going. Recently, there’s been a big upgrade of sport provision in Gaelic, particularly outdoor activities, skiing and canyoneering, coasteering, all these kinds of things, but it would need to be rolled out on a much greater scale to really make a big, big difference.”

Despite the talk of prioritising GME, current relevant legislation is actually fairly weak. There is no entitlement to pre-school education in Gaelic, which gives schools a challenge and misses an opportunity for early exposure to the language in a play-based environment.

Although many Gaelic schools and units do have a nursery, no transport is provided and it is not a full day service so parents need to be available to take their children there, possibly travelling long distances, and pick them up from morning or afternoon slots.

At primary level, despite the SNP commitment to “new legal rights” to GME in its 2016 manifesto, under the 2016 Education Act the onus is still on parents to request it and prove there is enough demand, rather than a duty on councils to offer it as a matter of right.

Major councils including Dundee and Fife provide no GME, despite Fife estimating that it has five per cent of the Gaelic speakers in Scotland, and last year East Renfrewshire Council refused to carry out a full assessment following a request from 49 families for a Gaelic-medium unit or school, claiming there was not enough demand.

Bòrd na Gàidhlig points out that in some areas, Gaelic education is being provided by transporting pupils to other council areas and in others, they are “developing the demand” but are at an “earlier stage”, beginning with voluntary early years provision.

Highland Council currently leads the way on numbers of schools with Gaelic-medium provision, with three standalone Gaelic medium primary schools – the latest, purpose-built Bun-sgoil Ghàidhlig Phort Rìgh in Portree opened in March this year – and Gaelic-medium units across the region.

Glasgow has two dedicated Gaelic-medium primaries, a third in the pipeline and the only Gaelic medium secondary, while Edinburgh has one Gaelic-medium primary and further expansion planned. There are seven Gaelic medium units in Argyll and Bute, as well as a number of others in schools across Scotland.

Comhairle an Eilean Siar has Gaelic medium units across the islands and some form of Gaelic teaching at 20 of its 22 schools, but despite 52.2 per cent of the population speaking Gaelic according to the last census in 2011 and 59.3 per cent of all the Gaelic speakers in the country living there, it still has no fully Gaelic-medium primary or secondary schools.

But councils can change their tune dramatically. In Edinburgh, the council has moved from being very resistant to providing GME in the city to offering a proactive strategy for expansion. A second Gaelic-medium primary is planned for 2023 and a Gaelic secondary for 2025, with an expansion of secondary education in the meantime as part of the move towards these objectives.

The city’s Gaelic-medium champion, Councillor Alison Dickie, explains the change: “When I took over in January as Gaelic champion, it was clear there was quite a number of issues and there probably wasn’t that kind of positive can-do attitude. So one of the turning points as well was starting to pull people together to work on a long-term strategy, to actually recognise it’s a right; it’s a right for a young person, for a family, and that’s why we’re trying to embed across the city is children’s rights for that Gaelic-medium education and the duty of the council to provide that.”

There is also currently no right to secondary education provision through the medium of Gaelic, even where children have gone through primary GME, and secondary-level GME is limited – often the only subject offered at secondary level is Gaelic itself, which affects children’s ongoing language skills and fluency.

McLeod says: “The underdevelopment of secondary education has been a huge problem for a long time because the proportion of education delivered through Gaelic at secondary really tails off, and even at secondary it tends to be what provision there is heavily concentrated in the early years, so secondary one and two and then it really tails off.

“And this has a huge problem for… two different things: it’s language attrition, that the children don’t get opportunities to use their language and keep it going, but it’s also a lack of language development.

“A monolingual English child who is 12 doesn’t speak like the one who is 17 in terms of vocabulary, expression, sophistication of expression and so forth. So instead of being on a trajectory of improvement, you’re actually slipping back, and that’s been a huge problem everywhere.”

Despite the Gaelic secondary in Glasgow having been going for 12 years, only around 70 per cent of the curriculum is delivered through the medium of Gaelic. Staffing is “still a challenge”, both at primary and secondary level, says McComb.

McComb mentions that she is “fortunate” that in sciences she has three biology teachers and a physics teacher who speak Gaelic, but for other subjects, it’s been impossible to recruit Gaelic-speaking teachers.

“There are subjects as well you wouldn’t believe we are short of: history, geography teachers through the medium of Gaelic… In all the years that we’ve had students coming through, we haven’t had a geographer. And that’s a worry, because that’s one of the subjects that they can sit their exam in Gaelic.”

McComb would like to offer modern studies on the curriculum, but can’t because she’s been unable  to recruit a Gaelic-speaking teacher. She says she would not have been able to open the secondary without Gaelic-speaking teachers who can teach two subjects, such as a maths teacher who also did computing, an English and drama teacher and others who could teach both history and RE.

The school is supporting existing teachers to qualify to teach other subjects, such as a biology teacher who’s doing her additional qualification to be able to teach chemistry and another teacher who was a technical teacher who also wanted to do art.

It’s when the subject choices narrow in senior school that it becomes most challenging, McComb says. And at the moment, Gaelic-medium Higher exams only exist in maths, history, geography and Gaelic, so for all other subjects, even if a Gaelic-speaking teacher can be found, the coursework and exam will be in English.

“The model we have is that the whole curriculum is delivered through the medium of Gaelic, right through to P7, but currently we are not able to do that because we do not have enough Gaelic-speaking teachers,” says MacPhail.

Teaching materials in Gaelic can also be a challenge, with teachers often having to find English materials and translate them themselves. MacPhail says it’s an “extra challenge”, while McComb says there’s “definitely an extra workload to being a Gaelic teacher”.

Even more challenging is finding cover if a teacher is off sick or leaves, particularly mid-year. This involves some “creativity” in moving Gaelic-speaking staff round to cover essentials because they can’t use an English-speaking supply teacher in the early years.

Lack of Gaelic-medium teachers is “a huge, huge problem and not really one that’s being cracked”, says McLeod. “A lot has been said about various things having been done. I don’t think remotely enough has been done to crack that situation. A great deal more could be done. But anything more that could be done would be both expensive and politically unpopular, so that’s why it hasn’t happened.”

Some work is now being undertaken, somewhat belatedly to address the issue. There are bursaries offered through Bòrd na Gàidhlig, but they are only £1,500 plus help with course fees up to £3,740, or £6,000 for those already working, compared to a recent announcement of £20,000 for new STEM teachers.

Bòrd na Gàidhlig chief executive Shona NicIllinein tells Holyrood the board asked for similar investment to support Gaelic medium, but the response was that the STEM investment would equally support Gaelic-medium STEM.

“We would like to have a bigger budget, or we would like to see the Scottish Government having a budget, which develops that principle of where there is a recognised shortage, there’s different mechanisms put in place,” she says.

In August, John Swinney pulled together a group of representatives from key bodies that have Gaelic language plans, including some councils, funding councils, skills and teaching bodies and Bòrd na Gàidhlig, and tasked them with creating “a faster rate of progress” for Gaelic. This included taking five workstreams forward, with GTCS and the funding councils taking forward a workstream on teacher recruitment. In its most recent magazine, GTCS asked for suggestions on recruiting more Gaelic medium teachers.

To make a real difference, though, substantial amounts of funding are clearly required. McLeod mentions measures that could have a real impact on the supply of Gaelic teachers, but they would be very controversial.

“[I]n Wales and Ireland… Welsh and Irish are taught as core elements of the primary curriculum. You cannot be a qualified, certified primary teacher without an ability to teach Welsh and Irish. You can’t become registered. So we could introduce that system in Scotland.

“We couldn’t do it next year, we could do it in ten years, but it would require a hell of a lot of investment in terms of the language education. They did it in the Basque country. They moved from a situation where there was no Basque-medium education to now it’s up around 75-80 per cent, but it took a huge amount of investment and political commitment and that’s been very clearly lacking here,” he says.

Work to increase the number of Gaelic-medium teachers includes a course, Gaelic Immersion for Teachers (GIFT), which is being delivered by Strathclyde University. Every year they take up to eight existing teachers out of school for a year to be retrained in Gaelic. However, it’s an expensive programme to run because those teachers have to be paid for their time, they’re drawing a teacher’s salary while thye take the course and somebody is filling in for them while they’re away. Assuming a £40,000 salary each, that’s around £320,000, on top of the cost of running the course itself.

McLeod adds that the problem with the GIFT programme is it only caters for intermediate speakers who already have a good level of Gaelic to take them up to a higher level and there “just aren’t that many people out there”.

“There would be plenty of people who would be willing to start from scratch, but you would need to take the Basque approach, they’d be out of school for three years. So let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that’s the better part of £150,000 per teacher for [the] three years. When people in the tabloid newspapers moan about really quite trivial bits of expenditure [on Gaelic], that would be completely off the chart!”

Other measures such as golden hellos for teaching in Gaelic medium would also cost money and be politically unpopular, but McLeod suggests it is a matter of priorities.

“[O]ften I feel that things like the Gaelic teacher shortage, they’re talked about the same way we talk about the weather, it’s a just a fact of nature and the laws of physics. It’s not, it’s about political choices.

“And I’m not saying I don’t understand where John Swinney is coming from in terms of his relative prioritisation of Gaelic-medium education, but it is about political choices and Gaelic is not considered very politically important.”

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