Cànan - Language

Conference 2015

Conference Opening Slide 

Parental effort and the support of organisations; growth in GME.

Margaret MacIver


Good morning friends! It is great to be with you today and I thank you for the invitation.

Moira addressing the conferenceThe task I was given for this conference was to provide a historical overview regarding the work done by parents over the years and the support they received to enable them to get to the stage we’re at today, celebrating 30 years of GME.  Some looking back to yesteryear in order to look ahead to the future.  

To do this, I would like to take you back to three years before GME was established, to the year 1982.  Why this year, specifically? Well, that’s an easy question for me to answer.  That was the year the important report “Cor na Gàidhlig” was published.  As we know, numerous important, substantial reports on Gaelic have seen the light of day over the years but, in my opinion, not one of them brought about changes like “Cor na Gàidhlig” did.  For me, that report was the source of the educational developments we witness today.

This report was commissioned in light of the 1981 census which revealed that only around 80,000 people left in Scotland could fluently speak Gaelic.  This decrease caused much dismay and eventually people began to understand that the language was endangered and, if nothing was done, it would die before long.

At that time, the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB) was the main development body for the Highlands and Islands and the responsibility was placed with them to endeavour to form a course of action to support the language.  Buoyed by efforts on behalf of the language at that time, the HIDB established a group of Gaels who were asked to perform two tasks, firstly to ascertain the exact situation and state of the language and, following that, to put forward recommendation(s) which would be presented to the Government. 

The group didn’t delay in fulfilling its remit and in 1982 the aforementioned report came to light and, although the report was published only in English, it can explaim matters better than I can.  The report stated:

“ In particular, there is evidence of a great deal of fragmented and isolated effort in the Gaelic field, which, lacking co-ordination and frequently acting in ignorance of similar developments elsewhere, tends to peter out fruitlessly and waste already tenuous resources.

We have also been made aware of the fact that a number of bodies, particularly local government and statutory organisations, have a genuine desire to take positive action on the Gaelic issue, but do not have at their own hand the immediate guidance and expertise they need.”

That was the situation as they found it at the time and, given the findings, the recommendation was as follows:

“The Report Group has come to the conclusion that a new agency, of a radically different kind from those already in existence, is needed if realistic progress is to be made in further Gaelic development. 

Accordingly, we recommend the formation of a new agency to be known as Comhairle Na Gàidhlig.........”

The Government accepted the recommendations of the Board and honoured the suggestion.  The only difference was that they named the new agency Comunn na Gàidhlig or CNAG rather than “Comhairle na Gàidhlig”, and it was established in Inverness in 1984 with a Director and Administrator.  A new agency was now working on behalf of the Gaelic language – a development body AND a co-ordinating body.

Now, at that time, as was mentioned in the report, things were happening on behalf of Gaelic and among of the activities highlighted in the report was what was being done among pre-school children.  The report stated:

“We have noted the almost complete dearth of Gaelic facilities for the pre-school age group, and regard this as a crucial area which needs rapid development.

We have welcomed the recent formation of Comhairle Nan Sgoiltean Àraich, a voluntary body founded specifically to promote Gaelic-medium playgroups, and recommend that it should receive the whole-hearted support of potential funding bodies, especially the Highlands and Islands Development Board.”

CNSA was established in the early 80s under the direction of Fionnlagh MacLeòid and we couldn’t stand here today and talk about 30 years of GME without drawing attention to the tireless, admirable work carried out by Fionnlagh and CNSA over the years, especially when very little was being done by others.  Following on from the report, CNSA became the first organisation which received support from the HIDB for a Gaelic initiative and, with the support they received from HIDB, it helped establish CNSA.

With that, we had CNSA and CNAG, AND there were parents – or, at least, there were small groups of parents at that time who were putting pressure on councils to establish GME.  These parents were situated especially in Glasgow and Inverness.

 Conference dellegates

With the efforts of parents and the support of both CNAG and CNSA, the first two Gaelic Medium Units were established in 1985 in Inverness and Glasgow with two rooms, two teachers and a little over 20 pupils between them, and that was it – the beginnings of GME as we know it today.

With this positive start, we had to ensure that these Units remained open and wouldn’t be closed in any circumstances.  Therefore, CNAG made a special effort to secure funding.  A conference was held at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in 1985 – the first conference on Gaelic, and invited to the event was the then Secretary of State for Scotland, George Younger.  At that conference, Mr Younger pledged that Specific Grants would be ringfenced by the Scottish Office for Councils to promote and support GME.  That was the beginning of the specific grants which continued over the years and still exist.  If it weren’t for these grants at that time, GME would have been supressed at its outset due to the low numbers of pupils and the fact it was so difficult for Councils to carry the costs.  However, with grants in place, there was no room for excuses. 

This was an extremely positive start for parents who were considering GME for their children.  In fact, it was so encouraging that before the end of the 1980s, 19 Gaelic Medium Units had been established throughout Scotland with nearly 300 children in attendance – real progress – progress with the parents in the driving seat.

I understand the first CnP group was established in Inverness at the beginning of the 80s, prior to the Unit’s opening in 1985.  I know that it was the first CnP group with a constitution and that same constitution was helpful to other groups when they were formally being established because, quite often, they had a lot of fundraising to do for certain things – especially travel to and from school, as councils didn’t pay for transport for GME back then.

As the number of Gaelic units increased, so too did the number of parental groups and they were normally established in the same vein as the group in Inverness.  The legal constitution gave the groups credibility and strength and that was necessary as, despite progress, matters were not straightforward for them.  Often many, many obstacles were hampering their progress if they wanted to establish a Gaelic unit in their school or community.  Sometimes the local council proved unhelpful, other times it would be the school or the School Board or the Headteacher, at other times it could be the community.  Unfortunately, some of the debates could get nasty and there were occasions when the media didn’t help the situation.  It was not easy for parents and they were in need of support; more often than not, they turned to CNAG for that support.  CNAG endeavoured to give as much support as possible to the parents until eventually, in 1993, they decided to host the first conference for parents in Stornoway, to provide an opportunity to consider the way forward. 

Around this time there were around 30 local CnP groups, 45 GMUs and over 1,000 pupils attending GME.  This was great progress in just eight years.  The parents had put their own stamp on the education system in Scotland and there was no going back.  They were deserving of a conference and it is interesting to look back at the papers from that conference and to consider the concerns that were being voiced at that time.  So, what was bothering parents 20 years ago?  According to the papers they had many concerns, but among the main ones were – lack of teachers; GME at Secondary School level; GME and children with additional support needs; lack of teaching resources……How could they make their voices heard to enable them to cope with the challenges ahead?  Unanimously, the parents recommended at that conference that they would have a National Body established for parents – constituted legally with its own staff. They requested support from CNAG to bring this to fruition.

So, as recommended, within a year, in November 1994 at a conference in Inverness, CnP Nàiseanta was established with a pledge from CNAG that they would receive funding for a Parental Officer in due course.  CNAG kept that promise and it brings me great pleasure to see that a Parental Officer still exists, carrying out a valuable task on behalf of parents. 

I remember well that at that time, CNAG was accused, especially in the media, of handing the responsibility that they should have been carrying onto the parents.  But, from my point of view, they weren’t fully understanding the situation.  The parents were the ones who held power when it came to the education of their own children, not CNAG.  Nobody can speak on behalf of parents in such a succinct and effective was as the parents themselves.  They would get a listening ear – especially a political ear – when CNAG would fail to do so.  CNAG was not a parental organisation although it was more than happy to provide support. 

So, isn’t it great today that such a group exists and I congratulate them on all they have achieved on behalf of the language.  They had vision, they had belief and they had the passion to bring us to where we are today.  As CNAG stated in the first information booklet they published for parents – “The support of parents – the strength of Gaelic”.  It is my hope and desire for you today that you will continue to operate as a professional body because there is still a need for such and, without doubt, there will be a need for such in years to come, even though your situation has changed dramatically as it is the nature of the world and the nature of education to be ever evolving. 

The results of the work and endeavour of parents speak for themselves.  It goes to show what can be achieved when there is a vision, and where there is the mechanism and structure in place to enable that vision to come to fruition.   It shows what can be achieved when people work together, when there is co-operation.  And, without doubt, that was evidenced as, following the recommendations in the Cor na Gàidhlig report, partnership working was happening at all levels of education.  For example:

  • There were five inter-authority groups that came together often, at political level; Officer level; teacher level – primary and secondary; community education level.
  • As well as that, CNAG had a Gaelic Education Action Group which brought together all bodies that were crucial to Gaelic education – including parents.

Indeed, it is fair to say that it was through that partnership working that resources such as Stòrlann came to be established.  Also, the research company at SMO, Lèirsinn, which adopted the responsibility from the councils to carry out research that was essential in giving GME a sustainable foundation.  It was also through these partnerships that the new systems for training Gaelic teachers was established, a system that exists to this day.  It was through them that we protected the rights of Gaelic in light of changes that took place in education.  It was through them that policies and strategies for progress were planned. 

I don’t think we could ever be accused of a “fragmented and isolated effort”. 

That, my friends, was yesterday.  But, what about tomorrow?

With that question in mind, I am going to return to where I started – to the Cor na Gàidhlig report – and I am going to ask the question.  The state of Gaelic today?  What is the state of the language in 2015?

If a detailed study was carried out following the most recent census, I wonder what it would reveal?

There would be many encouraging things in such a report, that’s for sure, because we have achieved an awful lot since GME was first established 30 years ago.  Indeed, I’m sure there doesn’t exist another minority group, in Europe at any rate, which did so much for its language as the Gaelic community did.  They have done a power of work between 1982 and today, such as: 

  • We have three Gaelic schools (as well as 60 Units) and plans for more
  • We have Bòrd na Gàidhlig
  • We have the Gaelic Act, which gave us the legal protection we sought for all we have achieved
  • Council and key public bodies have a duty to produce and implement Gaelic plans
  • We no longer have to deal with Westminster as we now have a Parliament in Scotland
  • At long last, we have a secure status
  • We also have BBC Alba

I could go on…

Do we not, therefore, have all we asked for?  When compared with the situation in 1982, that is surely the case.

However, they had something back in 1982 which we don’t have in 2015 and that is 80,000 people who were Gaelic-speakers.  With that in mind, our work is not yet done.  The statistics tell us that the numbers have decreased.

In 1982, Cor na Gàidhlig highlighted two failings which were hindering progress at that time.  I wonder what the crucial shortcomings would be in a 2015 census?  Do we still have needs?

Well, my friends, it is only you, who are so diligent in this day and age, working on behalf of the language, who can best answer that question and I am looking forward to hearing your views in the work-groups as the day progresses.  What are your thoughts?  What vision do you have for the years to come?  What is still needed to ensure the security of our language?  

Thank you for listening. 

Margaret MacIver

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