Am Bratach No. 233
March 2011

LibDems at sixes and sevens over Gaelic-medium education
by Mandy Haggith

The effect of Highland Council’s cuts is starting to be felt, and classroom assistants in schools are coming off particularly badly. In Gaelic-medium units, classroom assistants play a key role in providing children with the experience of immersing in a completely Gaelic-speaking environment. There are therefore concerns that the cuts could have a particularly negative impact on the fragile efforts to revitalise the Gaelic language in schools.

With the Liberal Democrats in control of the council and acting as both our Westminister and Holyrood constituency representatives, it is crucial for people interested in the future of Gaelic in this area to understand the party’s policy. However, there seems to be considerable variation in opinion among our elected representatives about whether or not Gaelic-medium education deserves positive discrimination in the face of the cuts.

David Alston, budget leader for Highland Council, says that a working group of councillors is looking into exactly how the cuts will be implemented, including whether any classroom assistants in Gaelic-medium units will survive the cuts. The group will report back in May.

Dr Alston was interviewed recently in the Northern Times by Linda Munro, who was elected as councillor for North West and Central Sutherland as an Independent, but is now part of the LibDem group. In that interview Dr Alston said, “Gaelic will take its fair share of cuts”, and Gaelic-medium classroom assistants “will go along with the rest”.

However, when questioned by Am Bratach, he agreed that Gaelic education was a different situation from general English language classrooms. He said: “If you’re going to have Gaelic immersion, particularly if children don’t have Gaelic in the home, you need to, as it were, create the pool that the child is immersed in, and that creates a particular need for more Gaelic-speaking adults in the classroom.” Dr Alston proposed that in some areas, volunteer adults who speak Gaelic should have a role in classroom support, but he agreed that in some places Gaelic-speaking classroom assistants could still be needed.

The supporters of Gaelic-medium education believe that as well as the argument that immersion requires more intensive staffing, there are also historical justifications for a higher level of support for Gaelic education. They believe any additional costs of providing education in Gaelic should be, as one proponent put it, “weighed against the enormous sums spent by the state in trying to destroy the language for hundreds of years.”

A recent analysis of Highland Council’s own figures for education and school transport revealed that the total cost per head to educate a child in Gaelic is actually £900 less than the money spent on educating pupils in English, and while 4.7% of Highland children attend Gaelic education, their transport costs are only 2.7% of the transport budget. Gaelic-speaking children not only do not get more than their fair share of the educational cake, but also their Gaelic education brings Highland Council a huge grant of almost £1 million from the Scottish government.

There is a paradox in Gaelic-medium education, which is that it is most cost effective in a city like Inverness rather than in the traditional Gaelic heartlands. This is because providing both English- and Gaelic-medium education (dual medium) in a small school usually requires additional staff. Rather than incur additional costs, Gaelic-medium units are tending to flourish in places where the population density is high enough to support two schools or classes (one English, one Gaelic) within a single catchment area.

The wider cause of bilingualism is uncontroversial. The educational benefits for children of being bilingual are well established and there is now even research evidence that being bilingual can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in old age.

The local economic benefits of Gaelic developments are also becoming better appreciated, even by politicians. Robbie Rowantree, currently North West and Central Sutherland councillor and standing for Holyrood in the May elections said: “There are all kinds of advantages to strengthening Gaelic. Importantly, it can improve the cultural experience that the Highlands can offer to tourists, which is so important to the economy. We are looking to sell a niche product and people look for cultural depth and use of Gaelic can provide that.” He goes so far as to say that: “You can’t enjoy the Highlands to their full extent if you don’t have Gaelic.’

Staffing tourism businesses with Gaelic speakers will only be possible if our education system produces them, yet despite Dr Alston being amenable to the case, neither of our local LibDem representatives seem willing to argue for Gaelic-medium units to be protected from the classroom assistant cuts.

Mr Rowantree said: “The argument to justify positive discrimination for Gaelic is difficult to make. We don’t want to achieve some bilingual children but in the process alienate the people who have chosen not to educate their children in Gaelic.”

This fear of upsetting parents whose children are educated in English is echoed by Linda Munro. She said: “I think it’s very unfortunate that there is positive discrimination for Gaelic education. I don’t think that it’s good for one side or helpful to the other to have this great divide in the community.”

Ms Munro does not agree that Gaelic-speaking classroom assistants should be treated differently from those in English-speaking classes. She said: “I am persuaded by the greater good argument. We have a limited purse and big budget pressures. I don’t think we can distinguish between children needing support because of lack of Gaelic at home and children needing support because some of their basic educational needs are not met at home.”

It is not widely understood that at the moment the Gaelic language does not get special treatment. Ms Munro said: “It is a problem of a mismatch between reality and perception. I would like to end the myth that if it’s Gaelic, everything is possible.” She is concerned that people have a perception that Gaelic education gets an unfair share of the limited resources. “People are getting angrier and angrier”, she claimed.

Up until now most of the debate has been about school transport, with children at Gaelic-medium units being guaranteed free transport, even if they have to travel outside of the traditional school catchment area. Pupils of English-language schools are only entitled to free transport if they are within this area. Ms Munro said: ‘I’d like the council to take a full, open, root-and-branch look at education transport, so that we understand where we came from, where we are now and where we are going to go.”

So, it seems that our local LibDem councillors are supportive of Gaelic in general terms but will not argue to protect Gaelic-medium units from cuts, despite some of their colleagues being prepared to accept the argument that such protection is justified. There does not seem to be an official party line on this question, and in fact LibDem policy on Gaelic is somewhat thin on the ground. A search of the LibDem’s website reveals that the only mention of Gaelic since 2009 is opposition to a Labour amendment to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill that would ensure translation of referendum questions into Gaelic, which the party’s president, Tim Farron, described as “fillibustering”.

The LibDem manifesto in 2007 supported the National Plan for Gaelic and said: “We want to see a growth in the use of Gaelic over the long term. That is why we must improve the availability of Gaelic-medium pre-school, primary and secondary education.” But if the LibDem councillors will not protect Gaelic-medium units from cuts, is there any prospect for growth in Gaelic-medium education in the foreseeable future?


CLICK to buy a postal subscription online

Go back to Home Page