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Gaelic education: is it effective?

6 December 2018 (Holyrood)

“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.

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