27 February 2016

Edinburgh's trouble with multilingual education.

The Scottish Government has long had an aspiration to wider availability of multilingual education, and recently formalised on the European model of 1+2. 1+2 is the idea that a child will be educated in their first language, and that during their primary schooling, they will be taught at least two additional languages; the first being introduced from the first year of schooling, the second no later than the 5th year of primary school. (Earlier draft versions of the regulations said the first additional language should be introduced no later than P3, but this has since changed.)

There are several steering principles underpinning the 1+2 approach. With regards to the first additional language ("L2") the government themselves state:
" The Working Group expects young people to continue with some form of language study in the L2 language up to the end of the broad general education, i.e to the end of S3. " [Language Learning in Scotland: A 1+2 Approach]
Children are therefore expected to be given the opportunity for continuity of access to their L2 until around the age of 14 or 15, and it is assumed that there will be the option to continue beyond that age, subject to the usual logistical constraints around class sizes and the viability of running exam-level classes for a small number of pupils.

Another of the principles is that language should not merely be taught as a subject, but should be embedded into classroom routine. There is even the hope that in the future it would be possible to offer subjects (or units within subjects) delivered through foreign languages. What could be more natural than listening to accounts from French or German WWII soldiers and civilians in their own language as part of the history curriculum, for example? It's a laudable goal, and even if we're not likely to achieve it in the foreseeable future, it's certainly something to aspire to.

The government's deadline for the implementation of this policy is 2020, and several local authorities are pushing to get themselves ready ahead of this date. Last year, Edinburgh City Council announced their intention to have the scheme implemented by 2017.

This too is laudable, but recent news has thrown the city council's commitment to this into doubt.

Gaelic-medium education (GME) has been available since 1988, when a Gaelic-medium unit was opened within a mainstream school, Tollcross Primary. Since then, uptake of the option for GME in the city has increased year on year. Tollcross Primary is a feeder school for the city-centre high school James Gillespie's, so secondary Gaelic-medium was implemented there. In 2013, primary GME education was moved to a dedicated school on Bonnington Road in the north of the city, outside of James Gillespie's school normal catchment area, but JG's retained its place as the city's secondary GME facility and the new school was given official status as a "feeder primary" to the school.

This year, however, James Gillespie's have found themselves with more applications for new admissions than they have capacity to accept, and the council have announced that the standard rules for oversubscription apply: priority to children within the geographical catchment area and those with older siblings already attending the school. As the intake for the Gaelic primary is drawn from the entire city (and beyond), it is most likely that the pupils who lose out will be those currently going through GME. There are 24 pupils in this year's primary 7 class, and current projections see 9 of them being refused a place at JG's.

The council's current proposed solution to this is to offer these children the option of attending Tynecastle High School, or the school for their local catchment area, but neither of these options fulfils the aspirations set out for 1+2, as local schools will offer these children no continuity in their L2 (Gaelic), and Tynecastle is little better. Tynecastle currently only offers Gaelic for learners, something which is not appropriate to children from a GME background. Indeed, children who have undergone three or more years in GME are not allowed to sit the Gaelic learners' exams at National 5 or above at all.

Going by the council's current projections, then, we're likely to see 15 GME kids in JG's first-year intake and at most 9 in Tynecastle's. With class sizes pegged at 30, that means that we've taken one class and turned it into two, which certainly does nothing to reduce problems of capacity at either school. When we look at what that means for course choice at 3rd and 4th year, when come of the pupils may be dropping Gaelic, what are the chances that either school will see a continuing Gaelic class for the GME pupils as viable?

This then leads on to a wider issue with GME provision at JG's. Aside from Gaelic itself, the school currently only teaches Art, RE, PE and Modern Studies through Gaelic, and currently none at a certificate level, although National 5 Modern Studies will be offered next year (see section 3.78). It seems likely that these classes will not operate in Gaelic for next year's first year, as that would mean having half-empty classrooms in a school that had already turned children away for capacity constraints.

Part of Edinburgh Council's justification for this decision is that:
"The level of current Gaelic provision at James Gillespie’s High School is not significant and could be relatively easily replicated, at least in part. There continue to be significant issues nationally with the recruitment of Gaelic speaking staff which limit what could actually be delivered at a secondary level, regardless of where it was provided. " (section 3.75, same document as above)

Both of these statements are true, but this is something of a question of cause and effect.

First of all, the reason for the low level of Gaelic provision is due to the lack of critical mass, and dispersing the GME primary cohort across two or more high schools will certainly not resolve this. Secondly, part of the problem nationally with the availability Gaelic-speaking staff is that for they typically spend the majority of their time teaching in English, and again this stems from a lack of critical mass within the pupil cohort. If the council's actions will lead to Gaelic-speaking teachers spending even less time teaching in Gaelic, then the council's justification is little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads them to further squander what is already a limited resource, rendering their argument somewhat self-defeating.

The lack of availability of trained GME teachers is something that is being addressed at the national level, but there's something of a chicken-and-egg situation: with the low number of classes being taught in GME at present, it is very difficult for a teaching student to gain placement experience in a Gaelic-medium setting. Depending on the subject you are training to teach and the school you are placed in, Gaelic-medium classes may be limited to BGE (the first three years) or even only the first year or two. Some subjects may not be available at all. This makes it very difficult for a new teacher to build up the confidence required in delivering through Gaelic a subject that they themselves will have learned through English. Any action at a local level that risks decreasing the availability of GME has knock-on effects at a national level that hamper our ability to address the issue.

Not just a problem for Gaelic

Many people will shrug their shoulders and say "it's only Gaelic", but they're missing the point, because at the moment it's only Gaelic that offers us a current model for language learning throughout schooling, and much of the Scottish Government's policy on language learning leans on the experience of GME.

Four years away from the government's deadline on 1+2 and one year from its own self-imposed deadline, the council is already making decisions that take it further away from its goal. This does not bode well for children going through primary education in other languages, and Edinburgh council's schools will be offering a fairly broad selection (among them French, Spanish, Mandarin, Polish, Farsi and Gaelic). What happens if a child who has learned Spanish since primary 1 finds themselves allocated to Forrester High School (French and German)?

This is a logistical matter that will become a serious issue for parents across the city in the next few years, and this is an opportunity for the council to pilot a solution on a small scale and work out a strategy before it's too late.

If the council can't handle the transition between primary and secondary correctly, it will turn children off languages: kids placed in a language class that is too easy for them will lose interest in languages, and kids placed in classes above their level will lose confidence in their own ability to learn.

The goal of 1+2 isn't just to give kids "the right language", but to give them the right attitude to language, so that they can go on to be successful language learners and pick up the particular language they need later in life when the need arises. Getting the primary-secondary transition right is absolutely vital in developing this attitude, and if the council can get this right for 24 pupils next year, how can it hope to do so for the hundreds of pupils moving into its high schools in 2017 and every year after?

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