The National Plan for Gaelic 2007-2012 contains ambitious targets for the expansion of Gaelic medium ( GM) primary school education, aiming for 4000 children enrolled in P1 by 2021. GM early years education and childcare plays a crucial role in attracting parents to the 'Gaelic system' and the great majority of children who enrol in GM primary have experienced GM preschool provision at nursery or playgroup. If the target numbers entering GM primary school are to be achieved then there will have to be a considerable expansion in the preschool sector too, given that there were just over 700 children enrolled in GM nurseries for session 2008-09. The National Plan includes a specific commitment to review GM early years education and childcare. The study reported here is a response to that call. It aims to clarify existing provision, identify gaps and make recommendations for changes or developments needed to ensure that the goals of the National Plan are achieved.
The review set out to examine
- the current extent of GM provision for early years education and childcare
- the supply, demand and promotion of GM early years provision
- the strengths and weakness of current provision
- the changes or developments needed to improve and extend current provision.
There were four linked and overlapping phases of the research. We began by mapping existing provision using a variety of online sources and publicly available statistics. We searched for local authority, private and voluntary sector provision and included education and care for children from birth to entry to primary school and out-of-school care for children during their primary school years. Providers identified through the mapping exercise were then invited to respond online or by post to a survey available in English and Gaelic. The survey was devised to be appropriate to the full range of provider types and covered questions about the nature and capacity of provision, demand and uptake, the way that Gaelic was used in the setting, staffing, costs and income, promotion of GM provision, collaboration with other agencies and suggestions for future improvements and developments.
In the third phase we interviewed 19 key informants who had responsibility for early years education,supporting the use of Gaelic or the regulation of early years provision. The final phase of the study consisted of the development of three case studies to exemplify and contextualise the issues emerging from the survey and interviews. In addition to the four study phases, we surveyed all local authorities about their involvement in GM early years and childcare and also conducted brief telephone interviews with providers who were willing to talk on the telephone but not to complete the full survey.
GM early years and childcare
We identified 127 providers of GM early years education or childcare, most of whom were located in Highland and in the Western Isles, although 12 other local authorities, across Scotland, also make some provision. Most provision is designed to offer preschool experiences (in local authority nursery classes and schools or voluntary sector playgroups) to 3- to 5-year olds. This provision is typically organised in up to five sessions per week, each lasting for between two and three hours per day. There is very limited wraparound or holiday care and provision for children under the age of three is usually at parent and toddler groups. There is little childminder provision through the medium of Gaelic. Most providers do not anticipate a growth in demand and few have plans to expand their provision. Although they publicise their services in various ways, they acknowledge word-of-mouth as the most effective way to recruit parents and children.
As the vast majority of children attending GM early years provision are from English-speaking homes, their time in the GM setting is their main opportunity to acquire Gaelic. The extent to which Gaelic is used varies considerably between settings. Some provision is Gaelic only, elsewhere both English and Gaelic are used and in some settings Gaelic is only used for specific activities such as singing. Recruiting staff who are fluent Gaelic speakers and trained early years practitioners was reported as challenging by many respondents. There is a lack of accessible professional development opportunities to support the development of early years practices which facilitate young children's acquisition of Gaelic.
Financial support for GM early years education comes from national and local government and, to a lesser extent from grants from umbrella organisations and public bodies. Playgroups and parent and toddler groups are dependent on income from fees. Wraparound and holiday care for all children is subject to fees, whether provided by local authority or private nurseries or childminders. GM providers typically report only low levels of contact with umbrella groups or support agencies, most commonly to seek help with specific funding requests or resources.
GM providers would like to see improvements in the supply of trained staff fluent in Gaelic, in professional development focussing on bilingual education and in the supply of high quality GM resources. They suggested that an increase in funding and support from national and local bodies and more effective ways of promoting their provision would help to achieve these goals but also sought enhanced opportunities for networking with other practitioners and providers.
Key issues for GM early years and childcare
This review has identified key issues in five areas.
1. Language learning and teaching including: effective approaches to support fluent speakers and learners in the same setting; achieving a Gaelic-only environment when not all staff are fluent speakers and English frequently encroaches; and ensuring that Gaelic immersion settings are sufficiently linguistically rich environments.
2. Ensuring high quality experiences for children including: ensuring that the training of practitioners equips them to deliver all the experiences and outcomes envisaged by Curriculum for Excellence in ways which integrate language learning; providing for continuity and progression and maintaining playroom practices and conditions for staff that promote a high quality learning environment.
3. Supply of GM resources including: overcoming the scarcity associated with current GM early years learning resources and finding ways to provide GM resources that are culturally appropriate and do not demand practitioner time for translation and production.
4. Varying parental perspectives and expectations: meeting the challenge of providing for children whose parents choose GM whether they are committed to Gaelic revitalisation or speak Gaelic at home, or seek to ensure that their children gain the benefits of bilingualism or are motivated primarily by the other social and educational benefits they associate with GM provision.
5. Managing demand and promoting provision including: understanding the varying levels of demand from parents, informing parents about GM provision without raising anxieties about language barriers for adults, finding effective ways to build an attractive local reputation.
Recommendations for change and development
The findings from this review have led to recommendations for action to:
- improve the initial and continuing professional development and training level of practitioners in GM provision and develop effective mechanisms for sharing knowledge and practice
- support GM provision through improving the supply of GM resources, extending provision for GM childcare and developing mechanisms to extend the opportunities that children have to use Gaelic at home and in the community
- grow the market for GM provision through a national promotion strategy focusing on the benefits of GM education and including access to a regularly maintained database and map of provision
- conduct further research into the outcomes for children, including their development of Gaelic as a result of attending GM early years provision and the efficacy of the various models of language development in operation
- conduct a Scotland-wide survey of parents to establish the nature of any un-met demand for GM provision.