Gaelic’s “worrying decline” at secondary school level threatens future of the language

Fewer school leavers are heading for Sabhal Mor Ostaig in Skye. Pic UHI
By Keith MacKenzie

Secondary school pupils are turning their back on Gaelic as a result of curriculum changes which could threaten the future of the language, the Scottish Government has been warned.

Stark exam figures have revealed that the number of learners sitting Gaelic exams has fallen by over 70 per cent in the past six years.

The decline has been attributed to the qualification system introduced in 2013 which narrowed choice during the senior phase of secondary school. Where pupils previously sat seven or eight subjects at Standard Grade level, in Highland they typically now only pursue six ‘National Fives’.

Amid a drive to encourage greater take up of the ‘STEM’ subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths there are fears that languages are losing out after the early years of high school.

A number of Gaelic bodies have expressed concerns in submissions to the Scottish parliament’s education and skills committee, which is currently investigating whether subject choices are being restricted in secondary schools.

Gaelic secondary school teacher association CLAS, national development body Bòrd na Gàidhlig, GM parents’ group Comann nam Pàrant; Sgoil Ghàidhlig Ghlaschu and Bun-sgoil Shlèite parent council have all written to urge action be taken at high school level.

The submission from Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig said there had been “a worrying decline in applications to our degree programmes, both from learners and from fluent speakers – in direct contrast to the continued growth of Gaelic medium education at primary level.”

First year applications to Sabhal Mòr have fallen by 17 per cent in the past two years.

The submission added: “In our discussions with high-school students it has been made clear to us that timetabling and a lack of subject choices is the single most important factor militating against studying Gaelic beyond National Five and continuing on with Gaelic to the university level and our own numbers confirm this.

“At Sabhal Mòr Ostaig we train the next generation of teachers, broadcasters, language-planners, and creatives who will secure a sustainable future for the language into the 21st century, but we cannot perform this crucial role if students stop studying Gaelic early in high school before they ever have a chance to come to the college.”

Data from the Scottish Qualifications Authority showed that the number of pupils sitting Gaelic learners qualifications fell from 844 in 2012 to 239 in 2018 – a drop of 72 per cent.

The picture looks slightly more encouraging when analysing the Higher statistics, which show no overall change but indicate an improvement in fluency levels. The numbers sitting a Gaelic learners’ Higher fell from 110 to 75 in the six years to 2018, but at the same time 130 pupils sat the paper for fluent speakers in 2018, as opposed to 95 in 2012.

Nevertheless, given that the number of children going through Gaelic medium primary education rose by around 1000 in the years between 2007 and 2017 greater steps at secondary level might have been expected.

Education secretary John Swinney admitted more work at secondary level was needed when he was in Skye last year to open the new all-Gaelic primary school in Portree. Pic, Willie Urquhart

Councils and schools are free to decide how many subjects students can do, and there is no national standardisation – but there are now calls for the Government to step in to encourage more high school youngsters to pursue Gaelic.

Arthur Cormack, the head of arts body Fèisean nan Gàidheal and a long-standing campaigner for the language, said the downward trend could have a “devastating effect” on Gaelic development.

He said: “A decline in numbers achieving Gaelic and Gàidhlig SQA qualifications will result in fewer students available to enrol for Gaelic courses at universities, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and other educational institutions leading, ultimately, to fewer people being qualified to fill the growing number of teaching posts needed to secure a sustainable future for the language.”

Mr Cormack suggested increasing the numbers at high school could be a question of flexibility and Government priorities, rather than additional funding.

He added:  “If it is deemed important at government level, there should be flexibility afforded to head teachers to enable pupils wishing to take Gaelic or Gàidhlig SQA qualifications to do so, even if that means breaching a limit in the number of subjects set by a local authority. Education Scotland should have a role in facilitating this.

He continued: “As a minority concern in Scottish education, the future of Gaelic is far too important to be left in the hands of local decision-making. Support for Gaelic needs to be prioritised from the centre and supported nationally.”

The parliamentary committee plans to take evidence on school subject choices in April and May.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Our focus is on a young person’s achievement at the end of their senior phase, not just within a single year, and the long-term trend shows a greater proportion of young people staying on at school beyond S4.

“Wherever possible schools should ensure that young people can choose their preferred subjects; however, timetabling, staffing and resourcing issues may mean that this is not always possible. Where a subject cannot be offered by the school, national guidelines encourage flexibility, enabling schools to consider alternative approaches that best meet learners’ needs and aspirations.

“We are aware of the concerns raised by the college and met recently to discuss opportunities for the development of additional academic and vocational Gaelic courses.”