A BID by parents for Gaelic primary school education has been rejected despite new laws which were supposed to encourage the spread of the language.

A group of 49 families from East Renfrewshire contacted the council asking them to explore the possibility of a Gaelic primary unit or school in the area.

However, East Renfrewshire Council sent letters to all those involved warning families children would no longer be able to attend their local catchment area school if a Gaelic facility was set up.

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“Instead, your child would attend another establishment in a location yet to be decided,” the letter said.

The council also highlighted the importance of parents learning Gaelic stating: “It is considered that it is crucial prospective parents ... who are not already Gaelic speakers are committed to learning Gaelic.”

The council said subsequent responses showed only families of eight children had remained interested - spread across a number of school years - and rejected the request. A subsequent appeal was also dismissed.

However, parents say the tone of the letter was designed to be off-putting and argue the council has not operated within the spirit of the legislation.

Under the 2016 Education (Scotland) Act an obligation has been placed on councils to investigate the case for a Gaelic unit whenever parents ask for one, but there have to be at least two pupils in order for it to be considered and five in the same year group to trigger an automatic consultation.

A spokeswoman for the East Renfrewshire parent group said: “The letter was extremely negative in tone and had a devastating impact, with some families withdrawing their support because of an apparent loss of a place at their catchment school a major issue.

“Perhaps more seriously, several parents indicated that they did not receive a letter, while others who responded were told that they had not responded.”

The way the council has dealt with the request has also sparked concern from national Gaelic organisations including parent body Comann nam Pàrant.

Robert McGowan, chair of Comann nam Pàrant, said: “We are surprised and extremely disappointed by the rejection of the appeal to East Renfrewshire Council which was based on clear grounds and we believe the council did not follow legislation and due process.

“It remains our view that the council did not act in line with the statutory guidance and that its approach to the assessment was both administratively and legally flawed.

“We will be seeking the views of the Scottish Government on necessary next steps in relation to this request, but also to the guidance itself.”

A spokesman for national Gaelic body Bòrd na Gàidhlig said: “The appeal against the decision was one part of the process and its outcome was a disappointment to the parents and to the Bòrd.”

However, an East Renfrewshire Council spokesman said the request for an initial assessment was considered in line with the national guidance set out in the Act.

He said: “Following the conclusion of the initial assessment, we established the requirement of demonstrating demand from at least five children in a year group was not met and, therefore, that at this time there is insufficient demand.

“An appeal was submitted and the matter was fully considered with all information carefully assessed before the decision of the education department was upheld by this independent committee.

“Any suggestion of equalities discrimination is completely unfounded and in fact the inclusivity of all our schools is something that the council and our parents are extremely proud of.”

The spokesman said the council was fully supportive of the “small number” of parents seeking a Gaelic education and would continue to provide free transport to schools and units in neighbouring areas.

The move comes after an upsurge in interest in GME - where pupils are taught the majority of lessons in the language as well as studying English. Some 6,000 children were in GME education in 2016.

Local authorities have previously argued the legislation is impractical because of a shortage of funds and a lack of qualified teachers and that it therefore creates unrealistic expectations from parents.

ANALYSIS

Wilson McLeod, Professor of Gaelic at Edinburgh University

THE rejection of the East Renfrewshire parents’ request for provision of Gaelic education raises very serious issues nationally.

In 2011 the SNP manifesto promised to legislate for a parental entitlement to Gaelic-medium education (GME).

This led to the Education (Scotland) Act 2016 which creates a complex mechanism for evaluating parental demand for GME which involves a two-stage process with a preliminary and a full assessment.

The Act is extremely detailed about the requirements of the full assessment, but it is clearly contemplated that very little is required to get past the preliminary assessment.

No-one anticipated that a local authority could do what East Renfrewshire has done by throwing out at the preliminary stage a parental demand that seemed to far exceed the low threshold of the Act.

There were several serious deficiencies in the manner East Renfrewshire managed the preliminary assessment.

The most important issue is the very strong statements about the need for non Gaelic-speaking parents to learn Gaelic to support their children.

This insistence is unprecedented. The overwhelming majority of parents of children in GME are not Gaelic speakers, especially in urban Lowland areas.

Gaelic policymakers have always believed it is extremely important to make GME accessible to as many people as possible.

Parents are encouraged and supported to learn Gaelic, but it is crucial to present this message in a positive and supportive way. A heavy-handed approach that discourages or frightens parents will be damaging.

This is particularly important in light of the national policy objective to increase pupil numbers in GME. This is the single most important element in the national strategy to secure Gaelic for the future.

If other councils were emboldened by the East Renfrewshire precedent to attempt to discourage parents from choosing GME, it could be a hammer blow.

The other major policy issue involves damage to strategy for implementation of the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005.

East Renfrewshire is in the process of developing a statutory Gaelic Language Plan under the Act.

Through this process the council should be taking proactive steps to support and promote Gaelic and consider “the potential for developing the use of the Gaelic language”.

The council has been given an outstanding opportunity to act with 49 parents expressing an interest in GME, but instead of embracing it the council has suffocated it.

This is also a serious challenge for Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the agency charged with implementing the Act. What is the use of the process if an authority required to produce a plan can act in this way?

Some now believe the current structure, by which the Bòrd works with councils to develop plans, but also evaluates and enforces them, is not workable.