5. RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CHANGE
Our research has revealed a number of areas in which action is needed to improve the quality and uptake of provision and thereby make GM early years provision more effective within the broader context of Gaelic language development policy. These include professional development, support needs, the promotion of provision, and further research.
5.1 Professional development
A number of steps in relation to the professional development of early years practitioners seem appropriate. All have resource implications, some more significant than others.
- Develop dedicated national training which combines early years and language development for GM provision
It is crucial that GM early years settings strive for excellence both in terms of overall early years practice and also in relation to targeted language development. Combining these two elements is a complex and sensitive task and dedicated training in this area (both initial and continuing professional education) would be extremely valuable. Currently, it appears that initial education or professional development for early years professionals, at all levels, omits the issue of bilingual development entirely, meaning that GM early years practitioners may have no formal, structured knowledge in this critical aspect of their work.
Action:colleges and universities offering initial early years education and professional development for this sector should collaborate with those providing initial teacher education for Gaelic medium to identify the most appropriate and most accessible approaches to providing initial education and professional development for this sector.
- Raise the qualification/training level of all GM early years practitioners and the quality of children's experiences
In most instances, early years practitioners (other than nursery teachers and managers of provision) are trained only to SVQ3 level, and in some cases their training may be a number of years out of date, such that they are no longer in touch with recent developments and innovations in the field. In addition, opportunities for in-service training are often limited and tend to have no special Gaelic element. Improving the skills base for GM practitioners could have important consequences for improving the quality of children's experience, thereby contributing to the overarching goal of excellence in provision. Sensitivity would be needed in this area, however, as several interviewees suggested that the imposition of significant new training requirements might lead to an exodus of experienced and hard-to-replace GM practitioners.
Action:Managers, employers, local authorities and others with responsibility for staff development should collaborate with colleges and universities to identify the most appropriate and effective approaches to professional development, and encourage and support practitioners to take up opportunities available.
- Develop effective mechanisms for sharing knowledge and practice
In many cases, GM practitioners appear somewhat isolated, having little or no contact with other GM providers and thus having limited opportunities to share their knowledge and experience, to learn from each other, and to benefit from the diffusion of innovation and 'best practice'. Structured networking workshops or conferences, on a regional or national basis, as well as less formal, but more flexible mechanisms such as on-line discussion groups, could make a useful contribution here. Existing structures and approaches developed in the primary schools sector ( e.g. A' Chuisle and Gàidhlig Air-loidhne) could serve as an appropriate model in this respect.
Action:Local authorities and national bodies such as CNSA, Bòrd na Gàidhlig and Learning & Teaching Scotland should run networking events locally, nationally and virtually, to encourage shared knowedge and practice.
5.2 Support needs
Action is needed in relation to a number of areas involving support needs. Again, there may be significant resource implications involved.
- Develop supply of GM resources
It is evident that the resources for GM early years are inadequate in many respects. The range of products available is limited in number and scope, and there are difficulties with distribution, so that some providers and parents may not be aware of, or able to access, the materials that are available. Development of materials should be closely connected to the Early Level of Curriculum for Excellence. Crucially, audio-visual materials of all kinds and new technology resources need to be developed; the shortfall here is much more pronounced than in relation to books.
The extent to which materials should be translated from English (or indeed other languages) is difficult. Arguably, a 'Gaelic' environment in which only the words and grammar are 'Gaelic' undermines the entire enterprise. However at present, with some important exceptions, material drawn from Gaelic tradition and culture appears to be rather underused in existing products.
Action:A new injection of dedicated funding seems necessary here, and either a new body should be charged with special responsibility for developing early years materials or Stòrlann should be given additional resources to develop further the range of pre-school materials it produces. Learning & Teaching Scotland could provide a dedicated site for GM Early Years resources and encourage practitioners to share those they produce for their own playrooms.12
- Support growth of GM childcare
The limited availability of GM childcare (including private childminders) for under 3s and older children either beyond their preschool free entitlement or primary school hours was an important finding from our research. Although the providers responding to our survey did not report a mismatch between supply and demand, it may be that parents have a different perspective. In urban areas such as Glasgow and Edinburgh, it has been suggested that GM provision tailored more closely to the needs of working parents ( i.e. all-day/'wrap-around' care) could lead to significantly increased enrolments. Increasing the number of hours provided would involve a range of operational issues, most obviously the need to recruit additional staff with appropriate qualifications and Gaelic skills (although arguably, such expansion could also make GM early years more realistic and attractive as a 'career option'). In addition to group-based settings, private Gaelic-speaking childminders could play a significantly increased role. Again, there appears to be a mismatch between demand and supply.
Action:A national co-ordinating body such as CNSA, CALA or SCMA could play an important role in encouraging new carers into the system and linking them with interested parents. Bòrd na Gàidhlig and the Scottish Government have a strategic responsibility to make links between plans for expansion of the preschool sector, in the context of the National Plan for Gaelic, to practical developments of this kind.
- Develop mechanisms to ensure that GM children have opportunities to use the language at home and in informal contexts
At present, the great majority of children in GM early years settings have little or no contact with the language outwith the structured GM environment. It is axiomatic that their language acquisition will improve in direct proportion to the extent of input. Where one or both parents speak Gaelic, mechanisms (and indeed policies) should be put in place to encourage them to use the language as much as possible and as early as possible. For parents who do not speak Gaelic, structured, accessible learning opportunities should be made available, and, as noted above, parents should be made aware of the key role of parental involvement in successful child language acquisition.
In endeavouring to be as accessible and open as possible, GM early years provision serves a wide range of parents, who may have varying understandings and expectations of the purpose of GM early years provision and GM education more generally. In some cases, parents may not be prepared for the demands of a language immersion setting and the extent to which successful outcomes depend on rich and diverse linguistic input. While parents should never be discouraged from putting their children into a GM setting, the Gaelic immersion strategy should be clear from the outset, and parents should be strongly encouraged (and enabled) to learn and use as much Gaelic as possible.
Action:Organisations such as CNSA and Comann nam Pàrant should develop information packs for parents and prospective parents of children attending GM preschool, and ensure that these are as widely disseminated as possible (on paper and electronically). Gaelic teaching organisations should develop provision specifically for these parents and ensure that this is widely accessible, in a suitable format for time-pressed parents.13
5.3 Promotion of provision
Existing provision is not promoted as effectively as it should be. Several measures could improve awareness and uptake.
- National promotion of GM provision
It is apparent that promotion of GM provision tends to be carried out at a local, indeed often setting-specific, level, with 'word of mouth' playing a central role. While this can doubtless be effective, and indeed preferable in some respects, there is clearly scope for a more co-ordinated national promotion strategy and an authoritative, central source of information concerning GM options. At present, many parents (at least those outwith Gaelic-speaking areas) appear simply to be unaware of the GM option or assume that it caters only for children who come from Gaelic-speaking homes. 'Growing the market' for GM early years provision is clearly essential if the ambitious targets in the National Plan for Gaelic are to be met.
Action:Two types of action are required. Firstly, an up-to-date national database of preschool provision should be made publicly available so that parents considering GM preschool for their children can identify the most suitable provision in their area, or request provision if nothing suitable is available. The map produced for this review could be regarded as the starting point for this database, but would require maintenance and regular updating. Bòrd na Gàidhlig may be the most appropriate body to take responsibility for maintaining the map or it could be incorporated in the annual statistical review of early years carried out by the Scottish Government. Secondly, a national promotion campaign should be undertaken, encouraging parents to consider the benefits of GM education - starting at the preschool stage - stressing both the cultural contribution which Gaelic makes to Scotland and the benefits of early bilingualism. Promotional campaigns of the type mounted in Wales could form the starting point for their development. Bòrd na Gàidhlig should take primary responsibility for this work, in collaboration with other local and national bodies.
5.4 Further research
In accordance with our brief, the scope of our research was limited and specific, with a clear emphasis on practical, structural issues. In the course of this review, however, we have discovered that more complex underlying issues also require attention, and that resolution of these issues may in fact determine the overall success and impact of GM early years provision. These would require additional investigation and different kinds of research instruments and methods.
- Further research into outcomes of attending GM provision for individuals and development of Gaelic language
It is apparent that there is currently no clear understanding of the expected and actual linguistic outcomes of attending GM early years settings. For example, in the case of an English-monoglot child entering a GM nursery at age 3 with no previous exposure to the language, how many Gaelic words (and what kinds of words) would he or she be expected to use actively and understand passively at the end of his or her time in nursery, and what grammatical structures should have been acquired? What would be the principal stumbling blocks in terms of grammar and pronunciation? At what point might children be expected to begin using Gaelic actively, and in what circumstances? At present, there are no clear answers to questions of this kind, even though a better understanding would be very valuable from a pedagogical standpoint.
- Research efficacy of language development models
There is evidently a diversity of practice at present in relation to the extent and range of Gaelic input in ' GM' settings, and this diversity is often based on underlying differences in principles and philosophy among settings and providers. There do not appear to be clear, structured models in relation to staged Gaelic language input. There is, however, an extensive body of research in relation to other languages which could be effectively applied to the Gaelic context. Research could show the most effective and suitable approaches for Gaelic education.
- Parental perspectives on supply and demand
From our survey responses, it appears that there is currently little unmet demand for GM provision; but as discussed above, it may be that providers are not best placed to establish the full picture. A Scotland-wide survey of parents of preschool children would help to establish whether there is unmet demand, perhaps in areas where there is currently no provision, or perhaps for other types of provision than are currently available. Also, given the need to increase demand in order to meet National Plan targets, such a survey could help to identify the kinds of arguments or incentives that would encourage larger numbers of parents to opt for this provision.
Action:the key bodies funding research into Gaelic - the Scottish Government, Bòrd na Gàidhlig and the Scottish Funding Council - should consider whether existing or new research funding streams can support work in this area
This review of GM early years and childcare provision has established a database of 127 providers offering GM provision in a range of settings in the public, private and voluntary sectors. Provision for 3-5 year olds is predominantly in group settings (nursery classes, schools and playgroups), where they attend for up to five half-day sessions per week during the school term. Younger children are mainly catered for by voluntary sector parent and toddler groups. There is little childcare available for all-day provision or care throughout the year. Nevertheless, providers did not indicate any expectation of expansion. If the targets for growth set in the National Plan for Gaelic are to be achieved, it looks likely that there will have to be substantial efforts by responsible bodies such as Bòrd na Gàidhlig and the Scottish Government to increase the demand by promoting the benefits of GM provision and bilingual early education. There will have to be corresponding efforts around a well researched and incentivised plan to increase the supply of GM provision, well trained Gaelic speaking early years practitioners and effective GM resources. If the expansion of GM provision is to be of an appropriate quality that fulfils the expectations of the regulatory authorities and Curriculum for Excellence and develops fluent and confident Gaelic speakers then it will also be necessary to develop an enhanced understanding of the pedagogy that supports Gaelic language learning for young children and learning across the curriculum.