Language issues in Scottish education

There are two current issues in primary education which may, in some ways, conflict  – certainly conceptually and, just now, in terms of competition for available funding. Both are language centred.

One is the  Scotland-wide issue of foreign language teaching in primary schools; and the other is the proposed 17% cut in Gaelic education provision in Argyll,

Market demand for the latter may be modest but is known and measurable; while it is unclear whether the evidence for market demand for the former has been measured.

Support for Gaelic is visceral, even amongst some who do not speak it. This response relates to the emotional hunger for the secure tenure of a culture which may now exist mainly, although powerfully, at a subterranean level.

The Gaelic remains the touchstone for a past imagined as much as known and, in that, while it is open to criticism as anachronistic, it continues to keep in the forefront the core cultural values  and experiences of the relationship to land, to place, to kind, to the physical demands of sheer existence and to the inspirational humanity of endurance.

People complain about the cost of maintaining and promoting knowledge of Gaelic – and about the expense of bi-lingual government notices, road signage et al.

But if we look at the resources given to Gaelic as feeding the often subliminal presence of a cultural soul and equivalent in spirit to resources sent abroad in international aid, why should an internal culture not receive support as much as an external one?

The other argument was put in a press release received today from Highlands and Islands MSP, Jamie McGrigor.

In it, he is issuing a focused challenge to the Scottish Government, related to its aspirations to roll out foreign language teaching in primary schools.

Jamie McGrigor supports the aspirations but wisely questions whether there are the resources to deliver them.

As a member of the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee, he has urged the Scottish Government to give a clear lead on language provision in primary schools in Scotland.

He says: ‘Since our committee started this inquiry it has become increasingly clear that there are simply not enough teachers with the necessary skills to fulfil this ambitious programme – nick-named ‘the Barcelona Project’.

‘The 1+2 model is the ideal and may have been proven to enhance foreign language skills of young children by starting them at an early age.

‘However if it is not properly funded, as witnesses have said in answer to our questions, its success is unlikely to be achievable.

‘At the moment it appears the Scottish Government is paying lip-service to the project rather than seriously making it viable.’

This is of course the issue with too much of the government’s current scattershot approach, pouncing with lack of realism and resources on anything that seems to have public relations value and  promising a little of everything on a single shoestring.

This is not just cheap politics, it is damaging to the fundamental security of, in this case, the strength of our education.

We cannot have everything and we cannot do everything.

Moreover, small children cannot learn everything; and they cannot learn as well as they need to learn in a dissipated and overcrowded curriculum.

At the moment, from the evidence of potential employers and of universities who are having to run remedial education courses for incoming undergraduates, we are turning pupils out of our schools whose basic grasp of numeracy and literacy is too often insecure to the point that undermines their futures.

Dissipating already scant resources ever more widely with each emerging idea on what can be added to the curriculum is light minded and is leaching the necessary skills and knowledge our children will need to as the foundation for making their way in the world.

Youth unemployment is arguably Scotland’s most serious challenge. It is not going to be solved by diluting their concentration on acquiring the secure core curriculum that, in Westminster, Michael Gove has been working hard to restore.

Jamie McGrigor’s focus on the lack of availability of the necessary resources to support foreign language teaching in primary schools is telling. These resources are scarce in funding and in personnel. Even Gaelic teaching posts are going unfilled.

And what do we mean, realistically, by ‘foreign language teaching’ in primary schools?

So much of this notion comes down to what Jamie McGrigor has called ‘paying lip-service to the project rather than seriously making it viable’.

In one way the government clearly recognises that we cannot have everything in the stringent budgets it imposes on local authorities to maintain the council tax freeze.

This forces councils to cut elements of, in this case, the education services it provides. Argyll and Bute Council announced the 17% cut in Gaelic education services mentioned above – a matter causing considerable distress and anger in the Gaelic community.

Parents, pupils and staff have no idea where this axe is going to fall. They are asking how this 17% cut matches up to the cuts planned in areas of education beyond Gaelic? They want to know if any impact assessments were done before this decision was confirmed? They raise the question of whether consultation will be necessary should, for example, a Gaelic Medium Unit have to close?

That the Scottish Government is enforcing such cuts lays bare the unrealistic but airy aspiration to see foreign language teaching in primary schools.

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