Gael-force wind of change in the classroom

WHEN Gwen Culbertson started primary school in the 1980s she was one of the first pupils in Scotland to be "immersed" in the Gaelic language. In January, she was appointed the head teacher of Sleat Primary School on Skye, where the majority of pupils are Gaelic speakers.

At the age of 26, she is a living example of the extent to which Gaelic education has grown and developed in recent years.

"Compared to 20 years ago great leaps and bounds have been made, but there is still a long way to go," she explains.

"This year we have 50 Gaelic medium pupils and 12 in English medium."

Ms Culbertson, who grew up as a Gaelic speaker on the Black Isle, now lives in a community where the living link with the language is still strong. She says: "We are still pretty much a Gaelic community here. If the parents don't have it the grandparents will, or their next door neighbours do.

"And we are really fortunate to have Sabhal Mr Ostaig – the Gaelic college next door."

At the recent Mod in Falkirk, Alex Salmond, the First Minister, announced an additional 2.7 million to support Gaelic education, saying: "The Gaelic language is a vital way of seeing and understanding Scotland. It contains the symbols and metaphors, stories and landscapes, that help define Scotland's unique culture and history."

For those campaigning to see Gaelic survive, education is crucial. Being educated "in the medium of Gaelic" means pupils learn a range of subjects in the language – rather than studying the language purely as a subject on the curriculum.

The growth in Gaelic education looks set to increase with every council in Scotland now required to produce a Gaelic plan.

According to Brd na Gidhlig, the government-funded body responsible for the preservation of the language, there are now 2,092 Scottish primary school children educated in Gaelic compared to 24 in 1985.

And there are now 62 Gaelic units at Scottish primary schools – at which pupils learn a range of subjects through the medium of Gaelic. A total of 293 pupils are being educated in the medium of Gaelic at secondary level, while 2,696 learners and 945 fluent speakers are taking Gaelic as a subject at secondary level.

Rosemary Ward, a former teacher who is the acting chief executive of Brd na Gidhlig, believes there is a new confidence among Gaelic speakers. "As Gaels we have always been aware of our culture but we can hold our own now in terms of our commitment to our language and education system. The Gaelic language has a huge contribution to make to Scottish identity."

While education is seen as a factor in the survival of Gaelic, historically it also played a role in its decline. The passing of the Education Act of 1872 began a period when Gaelic was actively discouraged in schools and started a significant fall in the number of speakers. At the time it was passed, 250,000 Scots spoke Gaelic. Today only 60,000 – about 1 per cent of the population, are speakers – although another 30,000 have some knowledge of the language. The prejudice about the use of Gaelic in schools persisted well into the last century.

Ms Ward, who grew up in North Uist, says: "For the likes of my father, he would have gone to school a fluent Gaelic speaker with no English – but the moment he walked throughout the door the language for instruction was English. What we are doing now is turning that on its head. We are helping children to achieve true fluency by giving them access to the entire curriculum through the language of Gaelic."

The Highlands and the Western Isles are traditional strongholds of the language, but there is an increasing interest in Gaelic education in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Two years ago Sgoil Ghidhlig Ghlaschu, or Glasgow Gaelic School, became the first to offer education in Gaelic for children from the ages of three to 18. It now has 400 pupils, of which 80 per cent come from homes where English is the first language.

Last year, the second dedicated Gaelic school opened in Inverness. Bun-sgoil Ghidhlig Inbhir Nis takes pupils from the ages of three to 12 and plans to develop further Gaelic medium courses in conjunction with the Inverness Royal Academy.

In Edinburgh parents of children at Tollcross Primary School, currently the only one in the city to offer Gaelic medium education, are campaigning to see the establishment of a dedicated Gaelic school in the capital.

Declan Thompson, the group finance director of the architectural group RMJM, is a prominent supporter of the campaign. Having been raised in Ireland where he attended Gaelic schools he was keen for his children, aged two and four, to grow up bilingual.

Although the campaign has plenty of support, Mr Thompson is sometimes surprised by the lack of understanding among the general population of Scotland.

"I despair in Scotland at the complete lack of support for language," he says. "In Ireland every single individual wishes they speak Irish better. People are embarrassed they don't speak it better – but nevertheless there will be that warmth towards the language and the culture and what it means."

In the near future, Brd na Gidhlig plans to challenge that perception with the launch of myGaelic.com – a portal for all things Gaelic. It is also campaigning to recruit more Gaelic teachers and to encourage public bodies to fund Gaelic speaking posts.

The new BBC channel Alba is seen as an important breakthrough for Gaelic speakers, as was the announcement at this year's Mod that Hebridean singer Julie Fowlis is to become the first ever Gaelic Ambassador.

For Lewis-born Matthew MacIver, honorary professor of Gaelic education at the prospective University of Highlands and Islands, the next priority is to encourage more secondary education in Gaelic.

"In the last few years Gaelic medium education has been the great success story of Scottish education.

"The increase is encouraging and significant – but I am interested in the leap from primary to secondary," he says.

"What we have seen since the 1980s is a renaissance, and a recognition from all parties that Gaelic is an important part of our culture in Scotland and something we shouldn't lose. We have made amazing progress and there is reason for great optimism."