What future for Gaelic schools in the capital?

Cllr Mary Campbell examines the options for a Gaelic-medium secondary school in Edinburgh

Gaelic medium education (GME) has been a massive success story in Edinburgh. The number of children taught through the medium of Gaelic (where Gaelic is the language used for all school time, not simply as a subject) has grown significantly over the last 10 years, particularly since the dedicated Gaelic primary school, Taobh na Pairce, was opened. But Gaelic has also been a victim of its own success – the growth in primary pupils has led to increased pressure on James Gillespie’s High School, where GME pupils are currently offered some subjects in the medium of Gaelic. Gillespie’s is now well over capacity, and while some of that pressure is being relieved in the short term by the use of the Darroch building in Viewforth as an annex, there remains a pressing need to find a permanent home for Gaelic at a secondary level.

The council’s current preferred option is to move secondary Gaelic to Liberton, and to build a dual campus alongside a rebuilt Liberton High School. When the council asked Gaelic parents for their views last year, the reception was lukewarm, to say the least. Just 15% of those surveyed said they thought Liberton was the right location, while half felt it was the wrong location, and the remainder undecided. Many argued that since the GME primary is in Leith, at the northern edge of the city, it makes no sense to place the secondary school in Liberton, at the southern edge. Young people would spend longer than necessary in travel, they argued, and some may simply drop out of GME altogether. From a Gaelic development point of view, there is a concern that a co-located school is very much second-best to a standalone secondary, which would allow full immersion in the language.

The main argument in favour of Liberton seems to be that of speed and ‘deliverability’. With the existing Liberton High School at the end of its shelf-life, and funding already agreed for its replacement, rebuilding a co-located school campus on land already available appeared to some to offer a win-win. However, in April this year, the SNP Holyrood election manifesto was published, stating, “The SNP has a general presumption against co-locating GME schools with English medium schools”, and “the SNP supports a standalone GME secondary school in central Edinburgh…. accessible from major public transport hubs to serve the wider Lothian region.” With an SNP Government re-elected and an SNP-led council in Edinburgh city chambers, it seemed obvious that the Liberton proposal would need rethought.

Not so, it seems. The ink was barely dry on the manifesto before the incoming Cabinet Secretary for Education, Shirley-Anne Somerville, had apparently reversed it. “It is clear that the council have presented an excellent option at Liberton High and one that serves the community very well”, she said. It is hard to square that statement with the manifesto commitment. Hence, further confusion and a certain amount of anger.

That is why, at the end of May, I submitted an amendment to Education Committee at the council, outlining Green councillor support for holding Scottish ministers to their manifesto commitment. The amendment mandated the committee convenor to press the Scottish Government on that manifesto commitment. Sadly, however, it was not supported by the rest of the committee.

In GME, as in many of the big debates we have in education, the path ahead is rarely smooth and I expect a few more twists and turns. I believe it should be possible to ease the strain at James Gillespie’s, to provide a much needed new high school for Liberton, and to provide a long-awaited dedicated secondary school for Gaelic-based learning. The best way to do so is through a new standalone GME school in the best, most accessible location to serve the whole Lothian catchment and I’ll continue to make that case.

Mary Campbell is the Green councillor for Portobello / Craigmillar and is a member of the Education, Children and Families Committee