By Jenny McBain

MINISTERS are not doing enough to support Gaelic education and it should be enshrined in law to safeguard the language’s future, according to a leading academic.

Currently there is legislative provision for Gaelic medium education in Scotland’s schools but this  does not translate into a statutory right. 

The 2017 Statutory Guidance on Gaelic education clearly states that, ‘parents of children under school age have a right to request an assessment of the need for Gaelic medium primary education from the education authority in whose area their child lives’. 

But according to Wilson McLeod, Professor of Gaelic at the University of Edinburgh this is not strong enough and allows councils to opt-out of teaching it.

Now he wants ministers to act more ‘forcibly’ in ensuring more schools teach it and also get more Gaelic-speaking teachers trained to deal with chronic shortages.

He said: “I think Gaelic Medium Education should be promoted more forcibly.   “One of the most controversial areas in Gaelic for a long time is the fact that there isn’t a legal right to Gaelic education so when push comes to shove councils don’t have to do anything and that allows them to not prioritise it very much.”

In the last 40 years the number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland has declined by around a third and there are currently just under 60,000 people who speak the language.   Meanwhile, increasing numbers of parents in Scotland are choosing a bilingual education for their children which is only available in Gaelic.  Professor McLeod added:”The reason GME exists is to support the maintenance and development of Gaelic language, so that people will learn Gaelic and then use Gaelic and contribute to the survival and development of the language community- that is why it is there and to me that is the most important aspect of it.”

Since  a change in educational policy in 2020, parents in the Western Isles have to opt out of GME for their children, rather than opt in which has led to a rise in numbers.

 But there is also currently a Gaelic teacher shortage in Scotland which is particularly acute when it comes to qualified GME primary school teachers.  Even the Glasgow Gaelic School has a long waiting list of families wanting places.  There are plans to open a Gaelic Medium Secondary School in Edinburgh.

But such schools lead to further staffing issues because teachers need subject expertise in subjects such as maths and physics as well as Gaelic language skills.   When it comes to providing Gaelic classes in mainstream secondary schools only 7 out of 32 local authorities do so.

Prof Mcleod said:”It would be hard to implement but my view is that it would seriously focus minds of those decision makers.  “It would ensure that Gaelic would receive priority because you see again and again that it does not.  “Three or 4 years ago the Scottish Parliament had an investigation into teacher supply issues in Scotland, teacher shortages and so on.  The report ran to 68 pages and Gaelic didn’t get mentioned at all.  “Whereas if there was situation where every local authority felt we’ve got this legal obligation these people are breathing down our necks all the time we’ve got legal liability on this, it would get it to the top of the agenda.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We are aware of both the need to recruit teachers of Gaelic and to provide good quality support for them in their schools.  “The General Teaching Council of Scotland, Education Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig continue to work closely with councils to identify teachers who would be interested in support to transfer to Gaelic teaching and training courses are available at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Glasgow University and Lews Castle College.”