THE head teacher who has overseen a surge in demand for Gaelic Medium Education in Glasgow has said her own childhood experience of English-only lessons as a native speaker fuelled efforts to improve access to the language in schools.

Donalda McComb will now say “Beannach Leibh” to teaching after 34 years and heading up the city’s first joint campus, which combines a nursery, primary and secondary that was ranked ninth best performing high in this year’s league tables.

Glasgow is home to the largest number of Gaelic speakers outwith the Highlands and Islands, a mix of native speakers who move for university or jobs and those coming through Gaelic medium education (GME) or learning independently. 

Figures published last week by online language learning website Duolingo showed there are around half a million people learning Gaelic in Scotland while there are schools in around 19 other Scottish local authority areas.

Describing those figures as ‘incredible’, Mrs McComb describes the continued, negative discourse that follows the language as “water off a duck’s back”.

“It’s always been a battle,” she said: “It’s a waste of money. It won’t do anything for you - I’ve heard it all in my years of teaching and outside of teaching. We persevere.”

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She is keen to clear up the misconception that Gaelic schools are for ‘middle class’ families. Schools have a city-wide catchment that including pupils from areas associated with deprivation whom she says are ‘out-performing’ their comparators.

Around 80% of families who send their children to the schools do not have any previous connection to the language.

Mrs McComb became headteacher of the city’s first standalone Gaelic primary in 1999, which was in the Woodlands area of the city. Previously families with an interest in the language could send their children to Sir John Maxwell primary, a mainstream school which included a Gaelic unit and opened in 1984.

“That had gone from strength to strength,” she said.

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“The parents at Sir John Maxwell felt it was time, the numbers had increased so much and there were more children in the Gaelic unit than in the mainstream school. They lobbied for a standalone school and I became the headteacher.

“The growth in Gaelic medium education has always had the parents at the back of everything.

There were 105 pupils in the first primary - there are now 1,094 at the campus on Berkeley Street and two other south side schools.

“At the time it was a small school, with composite classes but many people were attracted to the fact that it was just Gaelic curriculum.

“Then the numbers increased so much there - the building couldn’t take any more and in that time the parents again lobbied Glasgow City Council and the government at the time, which was a Labour government and they suggested a campus model because the children would go to us for their primary but for their secondary the associated school was Hillpark.

“We moved into this campus in 2006 but I only had 33 secondary pupils.”
Parents had the option at the time to keep their children at Hillpark or send them to the new campus. 

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“I think that was a huge decision for parents at the time. They were going into the unknown. They had faith it would work because they had seen that the primary school had developed and even though I came from a primary background I applied for the headteacher.

"It was a steep learning curve and the numbers just went up and up.”

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Pupils who go through GME benefit from the recognised ‘brain boosting’ benefits of learning another language at a young age, she says, while there is value in learning about another culture and becoming part of a different community.

“When I started it was to keep the language alive but now with the growth of GME across the country, it’s about creating the next generation of Gaelic speakers.

The benefits are that cognitively your brain works harder and the advantages of seeing and appreciating another culture. There’s a perception out there that it’s all middle-class parents.

“We have children from across the socio-economic divide. The children from the perceived areas of poverty and deprivation do really well and out-perform their comparators.

“Their must be something in there about having another language.”

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The traditional music scene that is inherent in Gaelic culture means pupils also have exposure to perhaps a wider range of musical opportunities than other schools - annual school concerts can feel like a professional gig. 

While younger children seem to relish having another language in which to speak to their friends, she says, understandably older teenagers will sometimes revert to answering questions in English.

Does she think a lot of the negative language around Gaelic, which inflames debate more than other minority languages, has an impact? “We very much instil from primary onwards our values and our vision and the benefits of being taught within Glasgow Gaelic school.

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“But of course you do get - teenagers being as they are - you’ll get ones who will not turn off exactly but will respond more in English than in Gaelic.

“We’ve developed strategies over the years to support and encourage pupils.”

Teacher shortages, particularly in secondary subjects including maths and the STEM subjects are a challenge but she says the situation is slowly improving.

Originally from South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, she grew up one of nine in a croft in a Gaelic speaking community and describes it as 'unbelieveable' that she was schooled in English-only lessons at primary school. 'It's getting better now in that respect," she said.

Mrs McComb will hand over the reins to Nelly McIntyre, at the primary while Catriona Campbell will be acting head at the secondary and is looking forward to spending time with her family in Uist and husband David.

"I’ve spent a lot of time in the school so I guess it’s time to give my husband some time. I’m going to miss the young people because they are like my own family in many ways.”

Councillor Chris Cunningham, City Convener for Education, Skills and Early Years said: “Donalda has been an amazing ambassador for Glasgow and Gaelic Medium Education in our city for many years.

"A highly motivated, caring and committed head teacher who has guided the Glasgow Gaelic School from the very beginning and who will be greatly missed.”