It’s a positive indicator of the health of the Gaelic language, that over the past week we have heard news that not just one of Scotland’s dedicated Gaelic Medium Education (GME) schools, but two are bursting to full. GME is and should be open to all, and in my experience welcomes children and families from a truly diverse range of cultural backgrounds. Many children speak three languages at home and it’s a wonderful environment to bring cultures together whilst celebrating and keeping our indigenous culture alive.
Such is the rising popularity of a Gaelic language school environment, that in Glasgow, even children brought up with Gaelic as a first language are unable to secure a place at a school a mile and a half away. The evidence demonstrates high uptake of places in schools where GME is offered, to the point that we now need more provision. The curriculum and expertise already exists, it doesn’t cost any more to train these teachers or to administer a GME school than it does English language education, but despite negligable financial barriers and a prior knowledge of this exponential growth there has been little planning for this.
The ‘is Gaelic worthwhile’ argument is a contentious one but regardless of which side of the fence you are on, Gaelic has been recognised as an official language of Scotland since 2006 and certain public bodies must have a Gaelic language plan.
The City of Edinburgh Council (CEC) is one such organisation. CEC identified 6 years ago that there would be more pupils of secondary level than they would have capacity for, and as yet there is no dedicated high school to provide for the future growth and community of those learning in Gaelic.
GME in Edinburgh is provided at Bun-sgoil Taobh na Pàirce. Children attending this primary school are not taught Gaelic, they are taught in Gaelic. The language is not seen simply as an added bonus.
There are many excellent bun-sgoil around the country but unfortunately there is only one dedicated Gaelic secondary school and it is in Glasgow. All the other GME kids in Scotland have to go to the designated secondary school in their area where they get some (but not all) subjects in Gaelic.
This means that the normal catchment rules don’t apply. If there is only one school in your area providing GME then it has to serve the all the people who want it and not just those who can live close by. In Edinburgh, children from Bun-sgoil Taobh na Pàirce go to James Gillespie’s. Except, it turns out, this year the children were issued letters saying that they might not be able to go and 9 of them would be separated from their friends and their GME studies.
All current primary seven children have already been preparing for the huge transition into secondary. There will have been meetings and ‘transitional visits’ and all were told they had places reserved. It must have been a huge shock for parents to receive, without any warnings or consultation, a letter informing them that not all the children will be able to attend.
Regardless of the language aspect to this problem, the effect of this bombshell on the children would be devastating. Removing them from their peer group at such a stressful time could be very detrimental on their overall academic attainment.
The council proposed to effectively remove some children from GME against their parents’ wishes. The very survival of the language depends on ensuring there is provision of GME where there is demand. Not only would the fluency of those children (some of whom are not native speakers and therefore not getting Gaelic in other settings) undoubtedly be affected but the exclusion of them would deny them access to the wider Gaelic community. This community and immersion is crucial for the Gaelic culture and language to thrive.
GME is inclusive and multicultural. It is open to all who choose it. If the CEC were to go ahead and reduce their intake of GME students that decision would have meant that only those who can afford to live within the catchment area for James Gillespie’s would be able to access Gaelic. Those parents from less affluent areas or Edinburgh, who have already shown their commitment for up to nine years by traipsing across the city, would have been denied. Meaning GME would be an exclusive choice only open to the wealthy.
The recent proposal by CEC flies in the face of their own Gaelic language plan which states that ‘The City of Edinburgh Council recognises that the status of a language is affected by its presence in the environment and the extent to which it is used, valued, and perceived to be valued by those institutions which play an important role in everyday life.’
If the catchment for GME is the ‘City of Edinburgh’ then the exclusion of these children would have been discriminatory if it were conducted as proposed. I wonder whether such a move would be in keeping with their legislative responsibilities. Perhaps that’s why the Council removed the report from their Education Committee meeting yesterday, on advice from their legal department.
For these children, this year, they have been granted the life they were expecting to transition to, and after the upset have now been advised they will all receive letters confirming a place to attend JGHS GME stream with their friends. But what about the children next year? And the years after that?
Splitting students up would cause the same problems, likewise sending them to a school that does not have the expertise or teachers to provide GME. The cultural and emotional impacts upon them will be seismic. City of Edinburgh Council have announced they will undertake a consultation towards identifying a solution for next year’s intake, but aside from expanding provision at JGHS or moving all the GME pupils with the teaching expertise to a new estate, it seems unlikely that CEC will be able to appoint teaching expertise to provide GME education at another High School which has no expertise in it.
How are the burgeoning numbers to be accommodated, if Councils don’t start to take the Gaelic renaissance seriously? A longer term solution needs to be sought, and it needs to be open to more children to meet the demand, and the rights of children to learn.
I hope that the council have realised they huge mistake they would have been made, and instead plan so that Gaelic is open to all that want it, not just for this year or a few years hence, but for all the children in nursery and those still to come. This groundswell of new young speakers is a tremendous opportunity, and we should accommodate it, before it’s too late.