Am Bratach No. 243
January 2012


North West missing out on Gaelic classes
by Mandy Haggith

According to the most recent Highland Council figures, the national scheme to give children access to Gaelic education is failing to reach children living in North West Sutherland.

With the exception of Tongue Primary School, where teaching is done in Gaelic-medium, none of the primary schools in the area have any Gaelic language provision at all, even as a secondary language. The Highland Council’s Gaelic committee has expressed “concern” at the large number of schools which still had no provision, particularly in Sutherland.

The Gaelic Language in Primary Schools (GLPS) scheme is a national endeavour to give the youngest children exposure to Gaelic in the same way that they learn other languages, particularly French. It is not to be confused with Gaelic medium education, in which children can become bilingual. In GLPS, teachers do not need to be anything close to fluent in Gaelic, and the scheme is set up to provide training to allow Gaelic lessons to be given by existing primary teachers, including those, in theory, with no current knowledge of the language themselves.

The council has recently carried out an audit of the children benefiting from the scheme, counting them on the basis of High School catchments. South of here, the number of children in the GLPS scheme is impressive. In the Portree area, 231 children are in the scheme, with twelve out of fourteen of the primary schools feeding into Portree High School teaching Gaelic as a primary or second language. In both Plockton and Gairloch, with 126 and ninety pupils benefiting respectively, all but one of the feeder schools provide Gaelic and the remaining schools have teachers currently undertaking GLPS training.

Yet over the Sutherland border the situation is completely different. Ullapool, Farr and Dornoch high schools each only have a single primary school involved in the GLPS scheme (Badcaul, Tongue and Bonar Bridge) and none of their other feeder schools provide any Gaelic to prepare the children for the Gaelic they could learn in S1 and S2. Even worse, Kinlochbervie, Golspie and Tain high schools all have no primary feeder schools involved in the scheme at all.

Despite this low level of impact, Highland Council’s budget for the scheme has been cut by 20%. The Gaelic committee stated: “This will impact on the number of teachers undertaking training.”

However, this budget cut is incidental compared to the deeper underlying problem, which is that the Gaelic language scheme itself is failing to make any impact at all in Sutherland, and the reason for that is that the much deeper budget cuts, which all schools are having to endure, means existing teachers do not have the capacity to get involved.

Norma Young, who administers the scheme for Highland Council, said: “There are vacancies in the training scheme and if any teacher would like to take part we will accommodate them. It is fully funded training and if lots of people want to take part in one area we’d move the trainer to make it easier for them.”

Clare Warwick, head of Lochinver Primary School, is planning to take part in the GLPS training but is is finding it difficult to allocate the time required for training due to the demands of reduced management time and the difficulty in finding supply staff. It is likely that the same is true in many other schools in Sutherland.
Norma Young said: “The limiting factor is staff being able to come to the training due to workload issues.”
It seems that in areas where Gaelic is relatively strong, as in Wester Ross and Skye, there is a network of teachers who can offer mutual support in teaching Gaelic and this makes it a less daunting prospect for new teachers. However, where Gaelic is weak, a different kind of support is needed.

Clare Warwick suggests that a peripatetic Gaelic teacher, who could teach in a number of schools in the North West, might be a way to fill the current gap.

However, Norma Young said: “This is not an option within the GLPS scheme. It has been proven not to be the best way to teach Gaelic and it is much better if the class teacher can do a little every day.” However, for lack of the best option, the result is that children in the North West end up with no option at all.

The lack of Gaelic teaching in the north has long been attributed to a lack of Gaelic teachers. This situation does seem to be improving. Bòrd na Gàihlig monitors the various teacher training courses across Scotland and reports that there are twenty-four new Gaelic teachers due to start in 2012, eight as high school teachers, and sixteen primary teachers. They are all guaranteed a probationary teaching place for a year after graduation.

There have been recent concerns that one of the main sources of Gaelic teachers, Aberdeen University, may be threatened due to the retirement of Christina Walker, a key member of staff who, among many other things, led the STREAP programme, a professional development scheme for existing teachers to become qualified to teach in the Gaelic medium. Fortunately her post is not being cut and Dr Walker said: “I am currently helping the University to recruit my successor.”

The main barrier that Dr Walker identifies to Gaelic teaching is one of confidence. “There are many Gaelic speakers out there who are perfectly competent to teach in Gaelic, but they lack confidence. And there is a problem of isolation. It is daunting to be the only Gaelic teacher in an area, but these days, through technology, you can get access to a support network, even if you are geographically remote.”

There are financial incentives for students considering becoming a Gaelic teacher, with funding from Bòrd na Gàihlig. However, there is no financial or other incentive or benefit to teachers, once qualified, to teach either in the Gaelic medium, or Gaelic as a subject.

If the Scottish government is serious in its aims to prevent the total loss of Gaelic from communities such as ours where it is in steep decline, providing incentives to teachers to teach it to the youngest generation should at least be considered. At the very least, someone needs to come up with something to fill the Gaelic gap in Sutherland, where quite clearly the GLPS scheme isn’t working.

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