Welsh-medium education is not all-white

Simon Brooks says Cardiff’s Welsh-medium schools row reveals hidden linguistic attitudes

Obscure and unworldly as political theory can be, it does sometimes have policy consequences. A good example is the recent row about the expansion of Welsh-medium education in west Cardiff. This followed Carwyn Jones’s controversial decision to block the Council’s plans to relieve school overcrowding by relocating Ysgol Gymraeg Treganna to the site of an undersubscribed nearby English-medium school. I must declare an interest as my daughter attends Ysgol Treganna. However, I will not repeat familiar arguments condemning the First Minister’s decision, but will explore issues surrounding the Welsh language and multiculturalism.

Although Canton Labour Councillor Ramesh Patel went out on a limb in his notorious description of Cardiff’s school reorganisation as “ethnic cleansing”, the basic tenet of his argument has been echoed by other Labour politicians, but in more subtle ways. English-medium schools in inner-city Cardiff are routinely described as ‘multicultural’, as in the oft quoted phrase that a particular school is ‘a successful multicultural school’. This then invites unspoken comparisons with the Welsh-medium sector, which is subsequently constructed as being somehow mono-cultural, mono-ethnic and, in a favourite piece of terminology reserved for the Welsh language, ‘exclusive’.

Playing to the gallery during her bid for the Wales Labour Party leadership last year, Cabinet Minister Edwina Hart stated controversially:

“I want Welsh medium education to be genuinely available to all who want it and Welsh medium schools to be genuinely open to all who wish to attend. I worry that some schools do not properly reflect the communities in which they are located. Why do some Welsh medium schools in the centres of our biggest cities – Newport, Cardiff and Swansea – have so few black faces in their classrooms? The worst thing that can happen to the language is that it becomes the exclusive preserve of a self-appointed minority”.

The tone employed here raises questions about how genuine the stated desire to make Welsh-medium education more ethnically diverse is. The ‘exclusive’ nature of Welsh education is blamed on ‘a self-appointed minority’. Furthermore, there is a suggestion that an unnamed élite regards the language as a screen for the maintenance of ethnic purity. Yet ESTYN reports that 13 per cent of pupils at Ysgol Pwll Coch in south Cardiff come from visible ethnic minorities, and although this figure could be higher it is nevertheless significant.

In addition to their black and Asian pupils, Welsh-medium schools contain other forms of diversity. Only a minority of pupils come from what we might call their ‘ethnolinguistic core’ – that is to say, from Welsh-speaking homes. As well as children with English-speaking Welsh parents, a large percentage of pupils in Welsh-medium schools are of English background. Given the role of the English as the ethnic ‘Other’ in Welsh-language culture, this is a significant form of multicultural commitment. But none of this shows up in UK-centric diversity monitoring forms which subsume English and Welsh ethnic identities under the category of ‘British’. This is not to say that Welsh-medium schools are not multicultural. Rather, the argument is that they do not conform to British models of multiculturalism in which language and sub-State identities like ‘Welsh’ and ‘English’ are deemed to be unimportant.

But the discourse connecting the Welsh language with ethnic exclusivity reflects a deeper malaise, and one which is in large part a product of post-devolution Wales. Welsh politicians like to present themselves as purveyors of a purely civic form of nationalism. The binary division of nationalism into ‘civic’ and ‘ethnic’ categories has meant that while devolution is lauded as a civic project, and hence good, language, with its link to national identity, is erroneously seen as ethnic and viewed more suspiciously. This false dichotomy has enabled the Welsh Government to ignore the problems of Welsh-speaking communities (an ‘ethnic’ problem in a ‘civic’ Wales), and now undermines the development of Welsh-medium education in urban south Wales.

This placing of various languages in civic and ethnic camps has been extensively criticised by academics who claim that the civic is often merely the ethnic in disguise. Civic nationalism is merely a situation in which the values of the majority group have become so normalised and hegemonic that people forget that the majority, too, has ethnic roots. The English language is the default language of civic identity in Britain – and thus imagined as multicultural and inclusive – because the British State requires everyone to learn it. It is exactly because the Welsh language has been marginalised and minoritised that it can be seen as exclusive and ethnic.

Obtruse theory indeed! But as the school row in Cardiff shows, it has real consequences. What can be done to prevent this dangerous new racialisation of the language debate? In the first place, it would help if the Welsh language were to become more ‘civic’. Moves to normalise Welsh – such as strong Welsh language measures which make it a language of the State – take the language into the realm of the civic. It is by making the Welsh language stronger that one can make it more inclusive.

Secondly, there needs to be a project which draws attention to the evidence for multicultural and multiethnic diversity in the Welsh language community. The Welsh language has always been a language of the non-Welsh as well as the Welsh in Wales. The Welsh-speaking descendants of English settlers in the Middle Ages, ethnic communities in the industrialising Valleys of the 19th Century, as well too as the Roma of rural north Wales in the 20th Century, are all examples of non-Welsh groups which became in part, or in whole, Welsh-speaking. No language is of and in itself more multicultural than any other, and the tendency to be ‘multicultural’ often means little more than the possession of enough cultural weight to assimilate others.

In Cardiff, developing a multi-ethnic Welsh-language community is best achieved by expanding Welsh-medium education. Hard to get into, taught in cramped and unsuitable buildings, and at the centre of endless political rows, it is hardly surprising that Welsh-medium education is less attractive to ethnic minority parents than it could be. The most effective way of addressing any ethnic imbalance in the intake of Welsh-medium schools is to make them more easily available in places like inner-city Cardiff.

Simon Brooks is a Lecturer at the School of Welsh, Cardiff University and is currently writing a book about multiculturalism and the Welsh language.

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