PROVISION of Gaelic medium education is too slow to safeguard the language, according to the principal of Scotland’s Gaelic college.

Professor Boyd Robertson, who heads Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye, spoke out yesterday after the latest census data showed the number of people who have some ability to speak, understand or write the language had fallen to 87,100 in 2011.

The rates fell in every group for those aged 18 and over, with just small rises of 0.17 per cent amongst 3-4 year olds, 0.22 per cent for 5-11 year olds and 0.06 per cent for 12-17 year olds.

When taken together, the changes still mean fewer than three per cent of youngsters aged 3-17 have the language.

Robertson told The National: “The data presented in the census shows how stark the situation is. We have to address it. Gaelic-medium education is fundamental. That’s progressing, but slowly. There needs to be more of an allocation of resources, particularly more teachers for secondary education.

“The numbers fall away between primary and secondary due to local authorities and schools not being able to recruit enough teachers.”

Gaelic medium education is available in about 60 primary schools and their associated secondaries across 14 of Scotland’s 32 council areas.

This includes dedicated Gaelic medium schools but Robertson says progress will not be made without a more radical approach: “The fact that there is an increase against a trend generally among younger school age groups shows the value of the investment in Gaelic medium education.

“There needs to be increased provision across all levels of education. I would like to see the creation of a Gaelic virtual school whereby places like Sabhal Mor Ostaig could offer skills by remote learning to schools where they can’t recruit a teacher.”

According to the census, 32,400 people could understand, speak, read and write the language. Another 57,600 could speak but not write it, while 6,100 could only read and write it and 23,400 could understand Gaelic but could not speak, read or write it.

Almost half of those with some Gaelic skills lived in the Highlands, the Western Isles and Glasgow, and most of those with the fullest skills were from the Western Isles.

However, more than one third of youngsters with Gaelic skills lived in households where no adult had the language and Robertson said a “more positive attitude” to the language is needed.

He said: “At this time when the BBC charter is up for renewal, we need to make sure that BBC Alba and Radio nan Gaidheal are maintained and indeed extended. They draw people into the language and the culture.

“All primary school children should receive education about the Celts and the Gaels in the same way they receive it about the Vikings and the Romans so that there is a better knowledge across the country and we develop a more positive attitude towards the language.”

Languages Minister Alasdair Allan said: “The increase in the next generation of Gaelic speakers, helped by a 12 per cent increase in pupils entering P1 of Gaelic medium education, clearly demonstrates that our investment in the language is paying off.

“Our efforts to support Gaelic and create more learning opportunities for all ages has also significantly slowed down the decline in the overall numbers of speakers, many of whom tend to be in older age groups.”