THE Scottish education system is a favourite target of attack for opposition parties. Rarely a day goes by without some headline or other screaming about a supposed lessening of standards, a looming crisis, or a wail about how Scottish kids are being let down by Thatessennpee. Some of the criticisms are justified, there isn’t an educational system in the world that isn’t capable of improvement. But, this being Scotland, many others are motivated simply by party politics and a desire to find some stick with which to beat the Scottish Government.

However, there is one area of Scottish education which is proving to be a great success, although even that success is still criticised and attacked by opponents of the Scottish Government. That area is Gaelic medium education.

Last week Allan MacDonald, chair of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the public body responsible for promoting and fostering Gaelic in Scotland, was reported in the press as saying that there has been a recent significant growth in the number of families seeking Gaelic medium education for their children.

The growth is most marked in those parts of Scotland where the Gaelic language hasn’t been spoken as a community language for many generations, in the towns and cities of the Scottish Lowlands. As the Gaelic-speaking population in the language’s traditional heartlands in the islands and the north-west Highlands continues to decline, it is fluent Gaelic speakers educated in these Gaelic medium schools in the Lowlands who will provide the demographic strength of the language in the years to come.

Gaelic medium education succeeds in producing new generations of fluent Gaelic speakers because, as its name suggests, it makes use of the Gaelic language to teach other subjects. Kids don’t sit in classes where they are taught Gaelic in the same way that French or other foreign languages are taught in schools.

The difference in the fluency level that is achieved is stark. I was taught Gaelic the old-fashioned way, and am the proud possessor of a Gaelic Learner’s O Grade and a Gaelic Learner’s Higher. I was taught Gaelic in much the same way kids in modern Scottish schools are taught French or German, in a dedicated class, a couple of hours a week. The result is that although I can puzzle out a written text in the language and have a reasonably sized Gaelic vocabulary, I struggle to follow a Gaelic conversation and can’t express myself orally.

On the other hand I acquired Spanish by hearing the language spoken on a daily basis, and using it in everyday life to learn about and discuss unrelated topics. This is similar to the way in which children in Gaelic medium education acquire Gaelic. The result after a couple of years was near native speaker fluency in Spanish. The dug was found abandoned by an irrigation canal when I lived in Spain, in a Catalan-speaking district. He is a trilingual dog, disobedient in three languages. He is, however, fluent in the language of doggy treats.

The success of Gaelic medium education in Scotland hasn’t been universally praised. Certain politicians are still bent on using it as a means of attacking the Scottish Government. Edinburgh LibDem MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton tweeted that while he has no problem with Gaelic, uptake of German and French in Scottish schools has dropped by more than 60% and suggested that “we have bigger fish to fry”.

He claimed he wasn’t attacking the Gaelic language, although bringing up the Gaelic language in the context of a criticism of falling attainment in foreign languages very much came across as an attack on the language. He insisted that it was fiddling while Rome burned to hail the growth in Gaelic medium education while there was a drop in the numbers of kids studying foreign languages.

Being a LibDem MSP, he couldn’t bring himself to say anything positive about the Scottish Government or the Gaelic language, but what he really should have said was that the Gaelic language strategy was such a great success that we should be using it as a model for teaching other languages in Scotland. If he’d phrased it that way then, for the first time in my life, I might have found myself agreeing with him.

There’s a persistent myth among journalists and politicians that teaching Gaelic somehow detracts from the teaching of other languages, languages which these journalists and politicians deem to be more useful.

That’s not the case at all. It is, in fact, perfectly possible to teach French or Spanish to children from an English or Scots-speaking background but to do so through the medium of Gaelic as part of a broader Gaelic medium education.

Other countries produce children who have far greater fluency in English than Scottish schoolchildren do in French, German, or Spanish because their education systems don’t just teach English as a foreign language, they also use English as a medium of instruction for certain subjects. They introduce English as a subject from the very beginning of a child’s education, and it remains a compulsory subject all the way through.

This was the model of education used in the part of Spain where I lived for 15 years. Children in the Valencian region are taught in Spanish, the local variation of Catalan, and in English.

The real issue here isn’t which languages are taught in Scottish schools. It’s how they’re taught. The success of Gaelic medium education demonstrates that the way to achieve fluency in the target language is by educating children in that language, by teaching them other subjects through it. Gaelic isn’t an elective that can be dropped for children in Gaelic medium education, it’s integral to the entire educational system.

That’s the model that we ought to be looking at in order to boost the numbers of Scottish children who leave school with the ability to speak other languages like French or Spanish.

Instead of making it the topic of attacks or criticisms, Gaelic medium education provides non-Gaelic speaking Scotland with an example to learn from. There’s no reason Scotland’s schools can’t produce children who are fluent in English and Gaelic, as well as French or Spanish or German.