Crisis, and Opportunity for Gaelic Medium Education (GME)

At the recent conference on Gaelic education held at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig between the 15th and 17th of June (1), we heard many teachers, researchers, and experts explaining the state of the Gaelic Medium Education (GME) system and about the additional aspects of minority language teaching. Teacher after teacher reported that the system we have does not provide pupils with fluency in Gaelic and that young people do not use Gaelic outside of the classroom. They don’t feel confident that their language skills are strong enough to do so. The research presented confirmed this. It also showed that even many GME teachers themselves do not feel confident about their language abilities. It showed that they do not get enough opportunities to strengthen their skills – especially those who teach in Gaelic units, often alone, in areas where Gaelic is not spoken in the community.

We all know there is already an alarming shortage of teachers (2), with Dr Michael Foxley and Professor Bruce Robertson saying 225 new teachers will be needed over the next five years. However only 25 qualified last year (3). The numbers of pupils shown enrolled in GME represents just that, those who are enrolled. We know that too many of them are sitting in classes, supposedly Gaelic classes, but without a Gaelic teacher in front of them, due to vacancies or a lack of Gaelic teachers on the supply list. There were 15 vacant GME teaching positions in the Highland Council area alone at the start of the 2022/23 school year. In addition to the teachers needed, there is also a dire need for Language Support Assistants in all Gaelic classes to ensure that pupils receive the support they need to successfully learn a second, minority language. There is a desperate need for an assessment system for learning difficulties, Dyslexia, etc., through the medium of Gaelic so that the learning needs of Gaelic pupils can be determined. Gaelic speaking PSAs, Pupil Support Assistants, are needed to support those who are entitled to it. 

The GME system is not currently creating a significant number of confident speakers, and there is still only a small number graduating each year with a teaching qualification in Gaelic.

  1. If this situation does not change, who will be teaching in Gaelic schools in ten or twenty years?
  2. Does the Scottish Government or Bòrd na Gàidhlig know the number of teachers that will be needed in ten- or twenty-years’ time, depending on the expected growth in GME, and according to the number who are expected to retire? 
  3. Does the Scottish Government or Bòrd na Gàidhlig have a projection for the number of young people that come out of the GME system each year with full spoken fluency, and literacy in Gaelic, and what number go on to a teaching qualification each year?  
  4. Bòrd na Gàidhlig have highlighted the number of teachers with a teaching qualification in Gaelic who are not currently teaching in GME, many of them due to the additional responsibility of teaching a minority language: what plan do Bòrd na Gàidhlig have to support Gaelic teachers, and how will the proposed legal right to GME affect that plan?
  5. How will the Government or the Bòrd design a new strategy for GME without these projections?

We recognise that Gaelic has recently been added to the STEM bursary scheme, and that is undoubtedly significant progress. But rural communities face a huge additional problem in recruiting teachers with housing and the cost of living – this too needs to be solved. The problem is much deeper than a lack of teachers, that lack is the result of a lack of fluent speakers in general. 

The ‘immersion’ system used at primary school level was designed in Quebec, where French was, and still is, strong in the community, it is also a major language internationally with a major European nation supporting it and producing teaching resources in it. That system has never been suitable for the situation of Gaelic, and it needs to be transformed. Confidence, and therefore language use, is highly dependent on a good foundation of grammar skills and a broad productive vocabulary. Primary schools need to focus more on explicit grammar teaching, with a focus on correct form and usage. There are insufficient correct language models or genuine immersion for children to pick up the language without this. The focus of the system must be on speaking abilities, on communication, rather than on subjects. Young people who are genuinely fluent in Gaelic, and willing to use it, are far more important than how many school subjects are delivered through the medium of Gaelic to pupils who struggle to understand. We know that where this is the case, and teachers are under pressure to ensure pupils pass exams, English is too often used as the language of instruction in any case. Young people will not be able to use a language outside of the school if they are only exposed to the language of the classroom.

Despite the all evidence, and the opinion of those who are teaching, it seems that policymakers still place far too much emphasis on the number enrolled in GME and expansion of provision. Although there is plenty in the Report to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy by the Short-Life Working Group on Economic and Social Opportunities for Gaelic, published on 20th of June, with which we agree and support, there is still too much emphasis on the legal right to a place in an ineffective GME system, and on the expansion of the number of subjects taught through Gaelic available at high school level, rather than on ability, communication, and opportunities outside the school. Has the Scottish Government or Bòrd na Gàidhlig investigated the impact of a legal right to GME; how many teachers will be needed to achieve it, in addition to those who are, and will be, needed anyway?

There are several questions regarding what constitutes a ‘legal right’ and how it would be applied. We need to have those discussions, and we would welcome any strengthening of the education system. But can the Bòrd answer basic questions about the ‘legal right’ they support?

  1. Who would have this legal right?
  2. A legal right to what; to effective immersion 3-18; to fluency in Gaelic? Or would it be a right to a place in a classroom, registered in GME, with a teacher who is already overstretched, or without a Gaelic teacher at all?
  3. If the legal right is only to be applicable in areas where GME already exists, as the Chair of Bòrd na Gàidhlig suggested in her interview with the BBC on 7th of June, what effect would that have on Councils that do not deliver GME currently? Would they be willing to offer GME in the future if it introduced a legal right for all parents in their area? 
  4. If it is not right to ‘draw a line in the sand’ to maintain direct support to some areas through recognised Gàidhealtachd areas, why is the Chair of Bòrd na Gàidhlig happy to ‘draw a line in the sand’ to establish a legal right for parents in an area where GME already exists? 
  5. Similarly, if the Chair of the Bòrd follows the principle of “building on where it is” in relation to education, why is the Bòrd opposed to specific development of the Gaelic language in the community ‘where it is’?

It is clear to everyone that there is a real crisis in the rural and island communities. These areas require urgent action – but a legal right will not improve anything in the traditional Gaelic communities, where Gaelic is already the default choice, or available in local schools. In reality, it seems that the legal right, as proposed by Bòrd na Gàidhlig, would only mean that the 20 or so pupils who were turned away in Glasgow last year would have been given a place, resulting in larger class sizes. We firmly believe that these people should have had the right to a place in GME, but this is not a development that will improve the efficiency of the system in creating speakers or be of any support to Gaelic where it is in crisis. And of course, it will do nothing to encourage daily use, or intergenerational transmission.

We feel that Bòrd na Gàidhlig should not use the same practical questions that may be asked regarding a ‘legal right’ to oppose ‘Gàidhealtachd areas’ out of hand, and therefore oppose the only realistic mechanism being proposed to directly support communities that are in dire need of a transformation of the Gaelic development environment.

Misneachd has proposed a system, based on the Gaeltacht system introduced in Ireland in 2012. If a policy based on the Irish model were implemented, local areas in the islands, and networks established elsewhere, would receive:

  • A local Gaelic plan every 7 years designed by professionals and the community,
  • At least £150,000 a year to implement the plan in each Gàidhealtachd area,
  • At least 1 development officer for each Gàidhealtachd to support local activities (as well as youth officers at Comann na Gàidhlig, and existing Gaelic officers at other organisations),
  • The status of Local Language Plans and the role of Development Officers established in law, 
  • Support, resources, and expertise from the Gàidhealtachd co-ordinating body, based in the islands,
  • Decisions about priorities and budgets closer to the community with collaboration between local organisations.

This proposal is just a start and should be seen as a foundation to build on over the coming years. But with several areas already working on local plans, the recognition of Gàidhealtachd areas would build on something that is already happening in the Gaelic communities, coming from the grassroots, and reinforcing it in legislation and law, giving security and status to the plan itself and to the role of the development officers.

The report from the Short Life Working Group on Economic and Social Opportunities for Gaelic says, “While Gaelic development in places across Scotland should be supported, special attention must be paid to the needs of a range of Key Gaelic Communities.” Indeed, the Working Group supports the idea; ” The group is broadly in favour of the designation of Gàidhealtachd areas, although the precise definition is still to be confirmed.. A few minor changes here and there will not suffice. A completely new development system and environment is needed, one led by people who live in the communities, so that they can have faith in, and ownership of, the process.

Misneachd are not against a legal right to GME in principle, but there is a significant risk that this will put additional pressure on teachers, and on a system that is not currently effective in creating the new speakers that are essential for the long-term survivability of the language. In our view, the legal right to GME would need to be accompanied by a major and comprehensive reform of the GME system and curriculum. Island based Gaels and Gaelic speakers more broadly currently have a great opportunity to significantly improve support for the language, both in the rural communities where there is a crisis, and in terms of the effectiveness of GME. We all need to make sure that discussions on a new language bill result in significant changes that will make a difference to the language. But the daily use of Gaelic must now be at the heart of every development or policy.


  1. Taic ga h-iarraidh do thidsearan Gàidhlig – Naidheachdan a’ BhBC (
  2. Taic ga h-iarraidh do thidsearan Gàidhlig – Naidheachdan a’ BhBC (
  3. Warning of crisis in Gaelic teacher recruitment – BBC News
  4. Warning over ‘crisis’ brewing in Gaelic-medium education | Tes
  5.  Còir laghail air foghlam Gàidhlig ga mholadh – Naidheachdan a’ BhBC (
  7. Report to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy (


Comments (2)

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  1. seonaidh says:

    Puingean, is ceistean, cudromach.

    Beul a labhras, gnìomh a dhearbhas. Tha an t-àm aig buidhnean na Gàidhlig, luchd na Gàidhlig (“just grow a pair”) agus an riaghaltas a ghabhail os làimh.

  2. Iain MacLean says:

    Gaelic is important to Scotland, you lose a language, you lose your identity. Gaelic will need money, public support and champions to teach, push and advocate for Gaelic, today, tomorrow and in a hundred years and beyond from now.

    However, it is always beneficial to place the issues surrounding Gaelic in to context in 2023, as we should when presenting all Scottish news and current affairs, something the bbc and press fail to do, on purpose.

    The primary issue(s) to raise is that Scotland has been going through a thirteen year unprecedented period of austerity imposed from tory westminster, this followed this followed the labour bank crash of 2008, not to mention a pandemic. Scotland does not have the economic tools other countries possess and our societal progress is constrained by a more powerful government elsewhere and the press and state broadcaster that external government manipulates.

    As a result public services in Scotland have been treading water for thirteen years, in England public services have been completely hollowed out. One local authority in England is over £2 Billion in debt!

    Gaelic has to compete along side the NHS, education, the environment, transport, economic development, etc, all of which are funded by taxation. Taxation which is in a dire economic state since the tories crashed the economy, high interest rates and rampant inflation that has resulted in people unable to heat their homes and relying on food banks.

    Instead of more money or demanding the Scottish Government or local authorities do something, what other options are there to enable Gaelic to flourish?

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