Gaelic needs a stand-alone school - Wilson McLeod, Bernadette O’Rourke and Rob Dunbar

Gaelic-medium education has been a remarkable success story in Scotland, not least in Edinburgh. GME has been offered in the Capital since 1985 and since 2013 there has been a dedicated Gaelic primary school, Bun-sgoil Taobh na Pàirce. Since the school opened pupil numbers have doubled to over 400, and there is clearly capacity for further growth as Taobh na Pàirce is located in the north-east of the city, near Pilrig Park, and caters overwhelmingly to families from that area. The great majority of parents are not themselves Gaelic speakers and the school has a strong multilingual, multicultural ethos.

Monday, 17th May 2021, 7:00 am
Updated Monday, 17th May 2021, 1:21 pm
Edinburgh's sole dedicated Gaelic primary school, Bun-sgoil Taobh na Pàirce, opened in 2013

Edinburgh is well behind Glasgow in the development of GME, however. Glasgow opened its third Gaelic primary last year (with a fourth planned for 2024) and it has had a dedicated, free-standing Gaelic secondary school since 2006.

Gaelic education in Edinburgh is now at a crossroads, as James Gillespie’s High School, which currently makes Gaelic provision at secondary level, is over capacity and a new home is needed. The council has now put forward plans to open a new Gaelic secondary school, but it is clear that its primary concern is managing the numbers at Gillespie’s rather than the strategic development of Gaelic education.

These plans have met with a mixed reception from parents, for two main reasons. First, the council’s preferred site, next to Liberton High School, is at the far end of the city from the existing Gaelic primary. This will mean very long travel times for pupils, so much so that some worry parents will be discouraged from choosing GME in the first place, thus stifling potential growth.

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Second, the council proposed a joint campus model by which the Gaelic secondary would share a range of spaces and facilities with an English-medium school. A key principle of GME is that it should create a full immersion environment in which pupils hear and use Gaelic at all times. This aligns with international research evidence on best practice in immersion. There are concerns that immersion could not be maintained if there was extensive interlinkage with an English school; a free-standing school would be preferred.

The council is now preparing to conduct a statutory consultation on its plans for Gaelic education, which also include plans to open two new Gaelic ‘units’ within English-medium primary schools. These would serve west and south Edinburgh. Given the pressure on capacity at Gillespie’s, the council is keen to begin this process as soon as possible.

Against this background, the SNP election manifesto included surprisingly strong and specific undertakings concerning GME in Edinburgh. The party commits to supporting a Gaelic secondary in central Edinburgh, underscoring that this must be accessible for the Lothians as a whole. It also underscored the importance of free-standing Gaelic schools in preference to joint campus or ‘unit’ models.

Many parents were delighted with the SNP’s commitments, as the Liberton proposal seems much less than ideal. A central Edinburgh location would clearly be more expensive, but there appears to be an opportunity to develop a flagship school that has the enthusiastic support of Gaelic parents and the wider Gaelic community. This can only come about with vision and determination on the part of the council and the Scottish Government.

Wilson McLeod is Professor of Gaelic at the University of Edinburgh. Bernadette O’Rourke is Professor of Sociolinguistics and Hispanic Studies at the University of Glasgow. Rob Dunbar is Professor of Celtic at the University of Edinburgh.