A storm of protest erupted yesterday (Thursday January 23) after Tories – fresh from their Westminster success in getting Brexit approved – went on the attack against the use of Gaelic as a language to teach pupils in primary schools.
Gaelic is listed alongside Welsh, Galician, Catalan and Basque as a semi-official European language, but this legal defence will vanish as the UK leaves the European Union.
In a war of words on Twitter and in the national media, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar hit back: “This statement suggests that education in any language, other than English, is detrimental to children’s education. All reputable academic research and practice demonstrates that bilingual education has a hugely positive impact on cognitive development learning for all children.”
Tory MSPs had earlier endorsed claims that the Gaelic language is “divisive”, Gaelic “is not and never has been the language of Scotland”, and that Gaelic road signs have “led to confusion amongst foreign drivers, and even some locals.”
The row erupted over a new policy from CnES which will see Gaelic become the "default" language for pupils for the first time in island primary schools. This means that parents will have to actively opt for their offspring to be taught in English.
Liz Smith, MSP, Scottish Conservative shadow education spokeswoman, said this was "A deeply troubling step and one that could put children in the Western Isles at a distinct disadvantage to their peers."
She was also reported in the Scotsman newspaper as saying: “This worrying move will inevitably put pressure on primary children in the Western Isles to speak Gaelic for those first crucial years of school. That could have all sorts of consequences that have clearly not been considered fully.”
Local MSP Alasdair Allan said: “The level of ignorance on display in Liz Smith’s comments is staggering. Children educated in Gaelic, far from being ‘disadvantaged', come out of school bilingual, and evidence points to them having higher attainment in all areas, including English.
“The Western Isles are the last place in Scotland were the majority of the population still speak the language. They do so despite ignorant remarks directed at Gaelic speakers down the ages.
“I had been under the impression that all parties in the parliament supported both Gaelic and Gaelic Medium Education (GME).
“I would ask Ms Smith to withdraw and apologise for these highly offensive remarks, which show a total lack of understanding of what Gaelic medium education is.”
Highlands and Islands MSP Donald Cameron has reiterated his longstanding support for the provision of Gaelic-medium education.
Mr Cameron said: “Personally, I support the decision of the Comhairle to change the default position to Gaelic at P1, not least because parents can still opt out and choose English medium education for their children if they so wish. Ultimately, this is a matter for the local authority taking into account the specific, indeed unique, circumstances in the Western Isles.
“Bilingualism is plainly beneficial. We are all aware of the mistakes of the last century, where one language was promoted at the total exclusion of the other. In terms of this policy, I am very confident that council officials will ensure that parents who do “opt out” are not marginalised in any way.
“It’s also important the policy is deliverable across the Western Isles in light of the challenges we face in recruiting GME teachers on a national level.
“The Scottish Conservatives have long supported Gaelic for over 40 years both in government at UK level, and latterly in the Scottish Parliament, where MSPs such as Liz Smith, myself and others regularly promote the language.
“As the Vice-Convenor of the Cross-Party Group on Gaelic, I’ve frequently argued for the need to depoliticise the language, given the ongoing threat to the very existence of Gaelic itself.”
Parents spokes out on the CnES Twitter feed.
“Ms Smith should come visit our son who is in GME - we never taught him to read, only did Gàidhlig practice and guess what, he could read English all on his own before P4 and our son is of average academic ability, nothing special - so the only explanation is the magic of GME!”
Another said: “I went through GME and have felt so strongly about Gaelic all my life (hereditary!). I can’t believe I am lucky enough to be able to call what I do ‘work’ when it gives me so much joy to promote, use and develop our beautiful language every single day among people of all ages.”
A further comment was: “My three kids are in GME, come from a family where both parents are fluent speakers in Gàidhlig. Son is on P3 has not had any English in school yet, but can fluently read and write in English, not quite sure what the “consequences” are that Liz Smith was on about today.”
Another said: “English bird here and Gaelic Learner, both my kids in GME. Fabulous education and blown away by the quality of education. My dyslexic son is now in S1 and in the P7 test had a reading/comprehension age in English of 16+ years and Gàidhlig of 12+ years. We love Gàidhlig in our house.”
One remembered: “My grandmother was the last surviving native speaker from the Braes of Glenlivet. She and her brothers and sisters were forced to speak English at school. However, my two youngest children were educated through GME and both are following great career paths. And I have learned it, too!”
Further comments included: “Great to see CnES normalise Gaelic Medium Education. Glasgow looking to open a 4th GME Primary School to meet demand. Always amazed to see how talented the young people of @SGGArdsgoil are. The question is why wouldn't you choose GME?.”
And one commented: “Multilingualism is the norm in most parts of the world: stimulating thought, vocabulary and innovation from a diverse range of perspectives. Proud to be ann a' #Gàidhealtachd. You have our full support @cne_siar.”
And various organisations pointed out that you can now learn Gaelic at N5 and Higher level anywhere in Scotland through e-sgoil organised from the Western Isles.