Gina Davidson: Gaelic school is just more vanity

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CAST your mind back a couple of years to the council’s school closures programme.

After all the wailing and knashing of teeth when it was first suggested that 22 schools and nurseries were to close almost immediately, the axe finally fell on just a handful of primaries.

One of those, one whose pupils and parents put up a good fight to remain open, was Bonnington Primary. A large Victorian building, it had perhaps seen better days, and given that its capacity was 415 children, and only 210 were attending, then by council considerations, it had to go,

So for the last two years or so it’s been lying empty, receiving the occasional visit from vandals, while all those children who did and could have attended have gone to other schools, upping the classroom sizes of those primaries while they’re at it.

And yet there is now a grand plan for Bonnington. A plan that could see the old place return to its former glory as it gets spruced up and made ready to open its doors to children and teachers again.

It should be a good news story. It should be a story about how a community is to get its school back.

But no. It’s a story of how a bad policy is being driven through council coffers by national government, regardless of the damage it might do.

There are many who claim that the Edinburgh tram is a vanity project of city councillors, and therefore must come to fruition no matter what. Well it seems to me that a Gaelic primary school in Leith is just that – only this time it’s a vanity project being foisted on the council and Edinburgh taxpayers by an SNP government.

Of course, Edinburgh has a Gaelic speaking population that is said to number around 5000. But that’s surely no surprise as this is a city that attracts people from all over the world. Yet no-one is suggesting opening a Mandarin school or an Urdu-only primary for the vast numbers of pupils from those backgrounds who already study in our state schools.

No, Gaelic it seems is somehow more important than other languages – even more important than English, despite the 2005 Gaelic Language Act only stating it should have equal value. So important that while other schools are being closed because their rolls are too small, Bonnington will reopen with fewer pupils – around 158 – than it had when it closed. But that’s OK, as they’ll be doing their learning in Gaelic.

What’s more, it’s going to cost the council £1.7 million (the government is paying £1.8m) to do it. Money that it will have to borrow – and that was before it discovered a further £22m hole in its finances.

I don’t particularly blame the parents who send their kids to the Gaelic unit at Tollcross, and who will use the new Gaelic school, for being excited about the prospect. After all if someone hands you the opportunity to have your children learn the language you were brought up using, instead of you having to teach them at home, why not grasp it? Why not also then demand more if the political climate is right?

Because that’s what this is all about – politics. It’s not really just about keeping an ancient language of the Scottish highlands and islands alive – it’s about courting Nationalist votes.

The people at fault for this ridiculous scenario are those in the government who are determined that Edinburgh should have a stand-alone Gaelic school – even if it means other schools will feel the pain as funding is removed from their budgets. Even if it means that Tollcross Primary, where the current Gaelic unit is based, might be put in jeopardy as its roll falls.

I realise that as the Nationalist party of Scotland, the SNP feels it has to prove its Scottish credentials time and again – I like to think membership involves knowing all the words to Flower of Scotland, proving you own a porridge drawer, and naming every whisky distilled in the land. And while I agree that more Scottish studies should be taught when it comes to history, geography and literature, these can all be accommodated within the normal curriculum,

But Gaelic is something else. It has never been a traditional language of Edinburgh. It’s always been spoken by a minority – fewer people speak it than Scots even.

I have no issue with people who want their children to learn another language – and I believe there are many studies that prove that bilingual children are more successful at school – I just don’t understand why, at a time when services are being cut everywhere else, at a time when kids who want to learn to play musical instruments are having the opportunity removed, public money has to be found for Gaelic. If I want my children to learn another language I’d have to pay for it privately – so why should Gaelic be different?

Gaelic may well be a lovely, lyrical, ancient language and be worth keeping alive, but surely that should be in the places where it is traditionally spoken, not in a modern, cosmopolitan city, where the only Gaelic word known to the most is “slainte”.

This Gaelic school is the SNP’s pet project; its a Nationalist version of the Tory government’s free schools down south. And it is bordering on ethnic engineering.