Am Bratach No. 323
September 2018

Gaelic nursery plan ‘still in its infancy’, says council

The Highland Council is fitting out a classroom at Farr Primary which it says may be used in future as a Gaelic nursery. However, no recent work has been done to assess the level of support from parents whose children might attend it. With the exception of Thurso, there is currently no Gaelic-medium provision at either nursery or primary school level north of a line stretching from Ullapool to Tain.

Highland Council member Linda Munro, who lives in Bettyhill, was cautious when approached about the seriousness of the plans. “I think there’s more than a little smoke, yes,” she said. “I think there’s a very definite ambition to have a Gaelic-medium nursery at Bettyhill.” She added that the purpose of locating Gaelic provision in Bettyhill was that it “sits in the middle of the patch”, and would thus be central for children from across the area who wished to attend.

A council spokesperson confirmed that building works within Farr Primary were incorporating “an additional space should a Gaelic-medium nursery be a viable option for the future”. An existing classroom is being refitted to match the specifications of a nursery, including a kitchen area and wet-flooring. “This will be pretty much the same as the other nursery in Farr which was refitted last year,” the spokesperson added. The council appears keen to put the time frame for completing the new nursery space firmly in the future. We were told that “the building works within Farr Primary School are on-going and are very unlikely to be complete before Christmas 2018.” This is in fact a mere four months away.

One of the reasons for stretching out the classroom works could be that little appears to have been done so far to furnish it with pupils. In an email exchange with Councillor Munro, the council’s care and learning manager Jacqueline Jennett emphasised that the concept of a Gaelic nursery was still only a possibility. “The situation hasn’t changed from what was planned some time ago,” she said. “Officers visited the Farr associated school group around a year ago to meet with parents to scope out the likely take up of places in a Gaelic nursery. Unfortunately the meeting was not well attended. Afterwards the head teacher asked parents if they would utilise such a resource, but these parents were not those who would now use such a facility. Work still needs to be done to canvas the views of parents who have babies just now who could attend a Gaelic nursery in the future.”

Stacking up the obstacles, Ms Jennet continued: “If there are numbers to warrant a Gaelic nursery we would still need to recruit Gaelic-speaking staff. Additionally, we would need to consider arrangements for these children to progress their education through Gaelic-medium in both primary and secondary school. As you can see, the notion of a Gaelic nursery is very much in its infancy, like any child who may use it in the future.”

The “Farr associated school group” is made up of Tongue, Melvich and Farr primaries, along with Farr High School and two English-medium nurseries in Melvich and Bettyhill. In a controversial move last year, the schools were grouped together under a single headteacher as part of a more widespread policy of combining the management of what are known as “3-18 campuses” — in other words, all schools in a given area from nursery to secondary level. Katherine Wood, previously acting head at Farr High School, was appointed to the combined post in May.

The council’s track record in Gaelic-medium education has not been encouraging for parents in the area. In December 2014, the last children to attend the Gaelic unit at Tongue primary were withdrawn due to inadequate staffing and fears over the quality of education being provided, in which the Gaelic teaching element had become minimal. Instead of remedying the causes of concern, council officials swiftly stepped in to “mothball” the unit. During the 1990s, Tongue’s Gaelic-medium pupils stacked up a string of educational successes under the leadership of Gaelic teacher Mairi Reid and headteacher Anne Scott. In Bonar Bridge, where parents had lobbied hard for Gaelic-medium from the late 1990s, the unit closed in 2016, barely ten years after getting off the ground.

The Care and Learning Alliance, an education group which employs a member of staff supporting Gaelic-medium playgroups in Thurso and Bettyhill, was approached for information on the numbers attending the Bettyhill group, but had not responded before we went to press. Last autumn, it emerged that a healthy Gaelic playgroup in Bonar Bridge was left with no opportunity to progress to the next stage of education in the language due to the mothballing of the Gaelic-medium stream at the local primary school (Am Bratach, September 2017).  

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