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.

4 thoughts on “Welsh-medium education is not all-white

  1. You say “In Cardiff, developing a multi-ethnic Welsh-language community is best achieved by expanding Welsh-medium education. ”

    Well what about expanding dual stream schools, one stream taught through the medium of Welsh and one in English, under one headteacher? Surely that would be a better way to develop a multi-ethnic Welsh speaking community. Welsh and English (as well as Arabic, Gujarati, Bengali etc.) speaking children mixing in the playground would be true multiculturism. Wouldn’t it?

  2. Our daughter is about to start in Ysgol Meithrin. She is beginnig to speak her mother’s tongue, which is not English nor Welsh, and Welsh, her father’s tongue.

    We are adamant that in a Welsh speaking environment such as Ysgol Meithrin and a Welsh medium education afterwards (in Gwynedd) that her ability to speak both her parents’ languages will come along just nicely. English will inevitably come later on in her schooling and her surroundings.

    If she was in an solely English speaking environment (such as an English medium school) then soon enough, as we’ve seen from our friends experience, she will become to speak English only. In this day and age, and for the sake of our daughter’s multilingual and multicultural identity, this is unacceptable.

    In short, a Welsh medium education ensures she will be multilingual (not just bilingual) and multicultural. We find it riduculous and insulting that some who should know better knock Welsh medium education to the contrary.

  3. Simon Brooks thinking is confused.
    Promoting Welsh-language education to the multitude of ethnicities and cultures in Cardiff is an admirable aim to anyone with a nationalist bent (whether civic or ethnic). But this argument is about not whether ethnic minority children in Canton should be encouraged to learn in Welsh but whether they should be forced to learn in Welsh.
    He might deny wanting to force anyone to do anything. Yet many ethnic minority parents in Cardiff would see the loss of the only successful multi-ethnic English-medium primary as just that – a forced choice between risking the segretation of their children or having them learn in Welsh.
    The problem is not the Assembly’s decision to save Lansdown, and much less its vision of civic nationalism, it is the council’s inability to draw up a solution that can create a genuine choice between multicultural Welsh and multicultural English language primary education in Canton.

  4. David – I understand your point, but if Landsown is the ‘only successful multi-ethnic EM school’ then why are the numbers less than the capacity and something like half the intake from outside the catchment area? I don’t understand your point about parents ‘risking’ having their children learn Welsh … there are several EM schools in the area which are convenient. The most likely situation of lack of choice is if someone (from what ever background) can’t find a WM school for their child not the other way round.

    The school wouldn’t be ‘lost’ either, it would be relocated or accommodated on another site. If Landsdown would be ‘lost’ by relocation, then, by definition, Treganna would also be ‘lost’ by relocation too. One presumes the ability and committment of the staff would remain as good as ever as well as the committment of the parents. No school is being closed or ‘lost’ but, somehow accommodated on another site. Or, there may be another option which Carwyn Jones knows of which is possible (but taking into account the lack of space and funds available).

    From what I’ve read the Council have tried two options now to answer the situation … can you offer another?

    It’s a difficult situation. As someone from Cardiff I hope it doesn’t create a ‘them and us’ situation, though, it’s obvious that parents, kids and teachers have strong feelings. The council have tried two options, the Government, or rather Carwyn Jones (he didn’t inform his coaltion partners of his decision) have thrown out one on the last day of sitting. I think it’s unfair to blame the council here. Councillors are also put in a difficult situation – as are other councillors across Wales – when faced with school reorganisation. It’s up to the Assembly in that situation to be an impartial arbiter and take decisions. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas and councillors don’t vote to reorganise education from choice! But a decision has to made. Appart from the one turned down by Carwyn Jones I’m at a loss to think of another option. Maybe you have one?

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