The benefits of becoming fluent in two languages

Michael Haggett asks whether parents should have the same rights to choose English-medium education as Welsh-medium

Changing the language status of existing schools is a very good way of meeting the growing demand for Welsh-medium education. It is almost always better than taking the decision to close an English-medium school that is not viable due to low pupil numbers and then reopening the same building as a new Welsh-medium school. This is because it minimizes the disruption both to individual children and to the community. What happens is that a school will start to teach all new pupils in Welsh, but that children already in the English stream will continue in that stream until they move on to secondary education. The school will gradually become a Welsh-medium school over a period of six or seven years.

Yet, according to a report in the Western Mail last week such a change being proposed for Ysgol Gynradd Aberteifi, the last remaining dual language school in the Cardigan area, is being opposed by local business people. But what is being proposed at Aberteifi is no different from what started to happen at Trimsaran in 2009, or what will start to happen at Ysgol Pencae in Penmaenmawr this coming September – a decision that was made by Leighton Andrews only three weeks ago, details of which are available from this page.

As we can read in the Statement of Information, parents at Ysgol Pencae make a decision about which language stream they want their children to enter at Year 1. Far fewer parents choose the English stream. Only 5 out of 30 went into the English stream in September 2011, and the parents of only 3 out of 26 children in the current reception year have indicated that they will choose that option for their children this coming September.

At Ysgol Gynradd Aberteifi, as we can read here, only 2 children out of more than 30 are in the English stream. This is unsustainable, in particular because such low numbers are bad for children in educational terms as there simply aren’t enough other children in class to interact with even when different year groups are taught together. Any school, anywhere in Wales, with such a low yearly intake would almost certainly be earmarked for closure.

If there is any difference between the two situations it is that there are schools very close to Ysgol Pencae, and any parents who want an English-medium education for their children can send them there instead without much inconvenience. But there is no other English-medium provision in the whole of south Ceredigion, the closest alternative being 31 kilometres away in Cei Newydd (English with significant use of Welsh) … although Ysgol Y Ddwylan, a dual stream school just over the Sir Gâr border in Castell Newydd Emlyn, is some 16 kilometres away. Neither of these is particularly close, although it is worth noting that in other parts of Wales children have to make even longer journeys to get to their closest Welsh-medium school.

The big question is at what point is it justifiable to do away with all English-medium provision in a particular area, or indeed whether it can ever be justified. All parents in Wales are able choose a Welsh-medium education for their children, although it sometimes involves having to travel a long distance to get it, paid for by the local authority. So should all parents have the same right to choose an English-medium education for their children?

To answer this question the first thing to realize is that Welsh-medium primary education generally produces better results than English-medium education.

Key Stage 2 Summary Tables, 2011

Welsh-medium schools All schools
English 86% 84%
Maths 87% 86%
Science 90% 88%
Core Subject Indicator 83% 81%


When broken down by free school meal entitlement to reflect deprivation, English-medium schools tend to do better in less deprived schools with up to 12 per cent free-school meal entitlement; English-medium and Welsh-medium are exactly equal in the 12-18 per cent free school meal band; while Welsh-medium schools do better in the 18-24 per cent and 24-30 per cent free school meal bands. But all these differences are marginal.

The big difference is in Welsh. In Welsh-medium schools children are taught Welsh to first language standard, but in other schools they are generally taught only to second language standard. However in both Welsh-medium and English-medium schools, English is always taught to first language standard. Therefore the main advantage of Welsh-medium education is that children become competent in both English and Welsh, rather than just in English.

It is not absolutely impossible for children to become competent in Welsh if they go to an English-medium school, but it is unlikely. For all practical purposes, Welsh-medium education is the best way of ensuring that your child is fully bilingual in Welsh and English.

The second factor to consider is how important it is for a child to be able to speak and write Welsh competently. Of course, this is a value judgement, but I would suggest that it is very much more important to ensure that a child is competent in Welsh and English in those parts of Wales where there is a higher percentage of Welsh speakers than it is in those areas of Wales where the percentage is lower, and that this difference justifies a difference of approach.

Parental choice is a good thing, but it must always take second place to what is in the best interests of our children, and it is up to us as a society to determine what these are through democratically elected government. Parents do not and should not have the right to decide whether their children are taught subjects like mathematics or science, or to what standard they are taught English, because these are key subjects which are important throughout Wales. Why should it be different for Welsh in those parts of Wales where the language is important? That is why the Welsh Government will insist that local authorities measure and fulfill the parental demand for Welsh-medium education, but does not do the same for English-medium education in those parts of Wales where Welsh is more widely spoken.

I think it is self-evident that a child who grows up in Gwynedd, Ynys Môn, Ceredigion or Sir Gâr (and perhaps west Conwy and north Pembrokeshire, too) will be at a severe disadvantage when it comes to both finding employment and being able to play a full part in the life of the local community unless s/he is able to speak both Welsh and English competently.

That’s not to say that any child who can’t speak Welsh elsewhere in Wales won’t be at disadvantage too—for being able to speak both languages will always be better than being able to speak just one of them—but that the disadvantage of not being able to speak Welsh will be less in those other areas. Because of this, I don’t think it unreasonable to allow parents a choice about the medium of instruction in the more Anglicized parts of Wales, but for that choice to be steadily withdrawn in the more Welsh speaking parts of Wales.

South Ceredigion is one of these areas. I think it’s fair to assume that any parent in the area who wanted an English-medium education for their children would be sending them to the English stream of Ysgol Gynradd Aberteifi, and therefore that the parents of only two children starting school this year in the whole of south Ceredigion, not just Aberteifi itself, have chosen to not have them educated in Welsh. It is unreasonable and impractical to expect Ceredigion to continue to maintain English-medium education for so small a number, even if it leaves parents with no choice about the medium of their children’s education.

Michael Haggett blogs regularly on Welsh matters at Syniadau. This is an edited version of his post 'The Choice of an English Medium Education'.

22 thoughts on “The benefits of becoming fluent in two languages

  1. It is unreasonable to expect parents to accept a second class system where English-medium education is denied, we are a bilingual region; if the position were reversed the outrage would be of biblical proportions.

  2. John – It is unreasonable to expect parents to accept a second class system under any circumstances – but as Michael has has demonstrated with his keystage 2 table, the WM schools produce marginally better results. Apart from that, I’m afraid I find your meaning rather obscure.

  3. John Tyler seems to have missed the point of this article entirely, which is that the only way to ensure bilingualism is through Welsh-medium education.

  4. I haven’t missed the point at all, some prefer not to engage with bilingualism, as is their want. In a bilingual region of the British Isles we should be able to accommodate all, including those who wish their children educated using the medium of English. Wales, as a fledgling democracy, must extend the franchise in all directions, to impose a single system upon a section of the population is unreasonable.

    We as taxpayers willingly use public money to subsidise Welsh medium education, the same principle should be applied to English medium education, the parents of both groups pay the very same tax collector so should expect the same level of support from government, national, regional or local.

  5. MH. is as mendacious with his presentation of statistics as usual. And as for this statement from Sion Eurfyl:

    “but as Michael has has demonstrated with his keystage 2 table, the WM schools produce marginally better results.” how he can deduce that from the 2011 KS2 figures is incomprehensible.

    The first thing to point out is that MH didn’t compare WM schools with comparable EM schools he compared WM schools with the all schools average. The second thing is that WM schools are mostly clustered in the benchmark categories between 0% and 20% on Free school meals:
    Total number of WM primary schools = 447 of which 439 assessed their KS2 pupils in Welsh First Language.

    So to give you a broad indication of the spread of WM schools in relation to FSM benchmarks:-
    0%-20% Free School Meals 356 schools or 80% of total WM schools.
    20% FSMs and over 91 schools or 20% of WM schools.

    If we then look at the schools whose average results are BETTER than the similarly benchmarked EM schools we find that this applies to the 66 schools in the 20%-30% benchmark categories, that is to say that just 15% of WM schools outperform EM schools within the same Benchmarked categories. But Free School Meals aren’t the whole story. When we look at the actual schools involved it becomes evident that the EM schools have a very particular problem…..they have a substantial number of pupils receiving English as an additional language; that is to say they have a relatively high number of ethnic minority pupils who are fluent in Neither English nor Welsh. The WM schools have virtually none!

    If we break down the two mediums into 7 groups of FSM benchmarks at 5% point intervals (except for 30%+) then look at the three core subjects common to both mediums; English, Maths, and Science then EM schools outperform their benchmarked WM counterparts in 16 instances and WM schools outperform EM schools in 5 instances. Only the 17 WM schools in the 25%-30% FSM bracket outperform EM schools in all three Core subjects.

    But what happens when pupils move on to WM secondary schools? Well, things get worse. Looking at the benchmark categories where WM and EM schools can be compared at KS3 with subdivisions at 3% point intervals starting with 0%-6%. WM schools are equal to EM average scores in English in just one category; 9%-12% FSMs where both mediums score 83%. WM schools are also equal to EM schools in Maths at 12%-15% where both score 82%. In all other instances where EM and WM schools can be compared on a FSM percentage basis EM schools outperform WM schools at KS3. That is to say in 13 cases EM schools score better and in the two cases mentioned the two mediums score the same.

    And before anyone asks, yes, the pattern is much the same at GCSE.
    I could go on about just how devious MH is being in his piece….Core subject indicator for instance is much easier to score highly on in WM primary schools than EM primaries for the obvious mathematical reason.
    As to the cost of educating a small number of pupils in a dual stream school, far from being outrageously expensive it is relatively cheap compared with the 8 pupils who have a WM school to themselves in Cardiff…at a cost of not far short of £20,000 per annum per child.

    Ynys Mon, Gwynedd and increasingly Ceredigion are merely operating the Tyranny of the majority. The language and culture rights of English home language children is being sacrificed to an Ideology supported by the dishonesty of the Welsh Language Board for decades and the spinelessness of Welsh politicians…..and of course helped along by a London based Blogger who thinks everyone in Wales is as gullible as his sychophants over at “Syniadau”.

  6. Who is refusing to engage with bilingualism? I am not sure to whom John Tyler is aiming this remark. The point is bilingualism exists only in Welsh medium schools. Kids who go to English-medium schools generally have no or minimal competence in Welsh after supposedly being taught it for ten years. Compulsory Welsh in English medium schools is patently a waste of time. I don’t know whether it is a problem in finding suitable teachers or whether it isn’t taken seriously but the average kid in e.g. Cardiff can’t count to ten in Welsh, never mind compose a Welsh sentence. I propose a deal: continue not to provide English-medium education where the demand is inadequate and stop making Welsh compulsory in English-medium secondary schools.

  7. The KS 2 results are somewhat distorted, Welsh medium schools are not that common in the anglophone urban areas of Wales, such as Swansea, Cardiff & Newport, the very areas that are likely to have lower achievment rates at KS2 and 16+ (GCSE). These area are also more likely to have higher levels of pupils on free school meals. Doing a simple like for like comparison doesn’t give an accurate reflection of attainment. It would also be interesting to look beyond and to analyse the employment and further education achievments of those who attend both types of schools to see the long term results of early educational choices.

  8. There are those who claim to support the Welsh Language, as long as it doesn’t affect them. In reality they are the enemies of the language, and would gladly see it die, if the truth be told.

    John Tyler says it is ‘unreasonable’ for people to be denied a choice of language education. The people of Wales have been denied that choice for centuries. There have been determined efforts by English and British governments to wipe it out. It has barely survived, and is under threat in its heartlands, and yet unbelievably there are those who feel threatened by it.

    He also describes Wales as a region, and not as a nation. I suspect that’s what he wants Wales to be, assimilated into England as soon as possible. I wonder how he would feel if it was his nation and language being described in such a manner.

  9. I agree with Tredwyn about Welsh second language in EM schools; as he infers, it is about as much use as a chocolate fireguard. The only reason that it isn’t a voluntary option in schools is that compulsory Welsh gives the spurious impression that Welsh is increasing in Wales. As for Welsh Medium schools and the claim that:

    “For all practical purposes, Welsh-medium education is the best way of ensuring that your child is fully bilingual in Welsh and English.”

    Michael is quite correct that WM schools give the best chance of Welsh Fluency but the picture is far from clear across Wales. I know little of education in the English Areas apart from what statistics can tell me but I get the impression that Welsh Medium education is more effective there than in the Fro Cymraeg. I can speculate as to why this is but the research just isn’t there to make a dogmatic statement.

    For what it’s worth (Opinion only) in South Wales parents make a conscious choice of WM schools. This argues a degree of committment by the family and an acceptance that the language of the playground will be Welsh.
    In South Wales the schools are Welsh Medium not the range of “Hybrid” Bi-lingual schools where every school has a different method/Emphasis/Degree of Welsh teaching and ethos.
    In South Wales Teachers accept all pupils as equal and treat them with equal respect for the simple reason that they are there by choice and can leave at will…..they have parental committment and respond to that.
    In South Wales parents who find that their child is NOT learning Welsh and becomes unhappy in the WM environment can remove their child to an EM school (although they will be lucky to get into an EM school with so few pupils on Free School Meals). They can also opt for EM secondary school in year seven and a relatively significant proportion of parents do just that.

    What happens in the Fro Cymraeg? Well pupils are more likely to come from a Welsh speaking home; 58% in Gwynedd about 40% in Ynys Mon. Beyond that they are more likely to have a near relative (one parent or Nain a Taid) who are FLUENT Welsh speakers.
    On the other side pupils who don’t come from a Welsh speaking background are more likely to actually BE English or second or third generation English and have a strong Cultural link to England.

    And the result? As a father of Four I have witnessed time and again the good will of English speaking parents as their child starts reception class and a genuine excitement that their child will be Welsh speaking. Then as the years go by that good will evaporates and parents just wait for secondary school so that they can go in at the start and demand that their child is taught through the medium of English. This last is verifiable by the way; the collapse of continuity of Welsh medium Education in the Welsh areas was researched in 2000.

    Why is this so? Well here again it is risky being dogmatic because there are good WM schools (they all are WM at primary level) which give good all round education and produce a high degree of Welsh Competency in MOST pupils (Not all pupils in any school). Other schools are a horror story! Significantly teachers fail to recognise or cope with the different backgrounds of pupils. By Year five (I recognise the time exactly) Parents from English speaking homes talk at the school gate about how far behind their children are in comparison to cousins in EM schools. They speak of the casual racism of the teachers and the failure to recognise the talents of children from English speaking homes…..there is almost palpable bitterness.

    This is so ironic… that teachers dedicated to Welsh speaking education destroy good will and disrespect the very pupils and parents they most need to engage with.
    The other side of the coin is well documented: pupils from Welsh speaking homes can lose good Welsh for the dumbed down Welsh suitable for teaching a mixed L1, L2 class.

    The greater Irony is that if English Medium Primary schools were allowed in the Fro Cymraeg the mere existence of “Choice” would eradicate all the ills of the system.

  10. Allowing Michael Haggett the oxygen of publicity for his dishonest presentation of Education Statistics is something thet Click needs to consider carefully. He has his own site at Syniadau and regularly blocks postings there that he feels will undermine his propaganda. Click has allowed him to post a piece that is quite provably misleading as I showed above. Freedom of speech is important to Wales but it is equally vital that only those who make some effort to behave honestly are given a platform.

  11. Not much to say other than use astonishment and dismay – Simply ‘there we go again, lies and more lies’ in promoting Welsh language above anything else and by any means. There are huge facts and in the public domain that English speaking kids of primary school age in Welsh-medium or bilingual education are disadvantaged Academically and Socially and this nonsense must stop and parents must be given a choice to educate their children in EM or WM but not both.

  12. It is time that some people released Wales is part of the UK the primary & most useful language of the UK is English.

    Those who want bilingualism can have it (wish they would pay for it though), this is a FREE country you have NO rights to force the welsh language on to children and families of Wales who want nothing to do with it.

    The English language culture is the most prevalent across the world due to the influence of the USA, Films and pop music, the vast majority of kids you force into this medium will NEVER use the welsh language, so will not be bilingual. Of those that do use it, it is doubtful they will be be able to read & write in Welsh to any degree of competence, so by any adequate definition they will not be fluent in welsh.

    This whole language gambit is nationalist (plaid and non plaid) effort to show we are different therefore should be independent , and the minute WAG has to stop wasting money supporting it the house of card will come crashing down. Yes at some point they will have to stop and return money to the vital services budgets they are stealing it from, (unless they want Wales to continue languishing at the bottom of every league table that matters.).

    To the person who said adjusted stats show WM is performing better than EM, BBC Wales has confirmed to me in writing that they are removing that statement from their website (school gate) as they agree it has been wrong since 2007.

  13. I am almost persuaded by the patient argumentation of Jon Jones then I read the arrogant dogmatismof ‘nospin’ who is saying because the UK is one state, a minority language and culture can be pressured out of existence and, whatever its cultural merits and heritage, it is not entitled to offical sanction or support. ‘Vital services’? What could be more vital than our kids having the opportunity to maintain their own language and culture? Not everyone wants to sell their birthright for a mess of pottage.

  14. Tredwyn, people look at the “Language Medium” issue from all different angles. I remember when the drive for Welsh Medium Schools was so that Welsh first language children didn’t suffer the disadvantage of going from the language of the hearth into a “Foreign” environment where everyone spoke English. A very justifiable reason for having Welsh Medium schools for any parent who wants to use them. The Welsh Language Board pushed the matter further by saying that Welsh Medium schools were better for all pupils and quoted Ellen Bialystok’s research from York university as if her very controlled study of immersion classes of all monoglot English speakers taught French by specialised teachers was proof that in Wales, where every class has a different mix of English L1 and Welsh L1 pupils, similar results were guaranteed.

    The mixed Welsh/English classes are extremely difficult to teach effectively and it is easy to get it badly wrong. It so happens that English Medium schools have improved faster than WM schools, for whatever reason, and now benchmarked statistics are showing an almost blanket small level of superiority in the EM schools.

    All this means in reality is that something has gone wrong in the WM schools as a group; in two years time they may have better results again but what is certainly false is the theory that WM schools have some magical innate superiority as a result of just being Bi-lingual.

    Time and again, when parents are asked why they are choosing WM schools they say that those schools have better results. But this does NOT mean that any particular child will be better served by a Welsh Medium school. There is, in the English areas, a fairly significant drop out rate from WM schools as parents realise that their child is not thriving in the Welsh Medium.

    The problem is that in the Fro Cymraeg parents don’t have the option of switching out of WM schools. Few would actually take that option but it is nevertheless important that it exists.

    This messianic pursuit of Welsh Medium Education as if it were some sort of Holy Grail is madness. One size does not fit all in education… choice is essential.

  15. I am a parent whose children go to Ysgol Pencae. I do not agree that English should not be my childrens’ first language in primary school as it is the most commonly spoken language, and personally I do not see why my children should have to change shools to learn English when I myself only speak English and have no understanding of Welsh and as a single mother of 3 have no time to learn Welsh.

  16. Miss Lyndsay Carty. Well said and be assured that there are welsh people like myself who are english only speakers,and only wish to speak english sympathise entirely with your plight. I have come firmly of the opinion that people who wish to use english as first language in wales now need a ‘society’to promote their interests as we are being swamped by propaganda,and intransigence from the welsh language fanatics,who unfortunately are now in the asendency to all our detriments. The latest wheeze about Eon is only the start of the powers of the Welsh Language Police in ENFORCING its useage upon an unwilling populace.Good wishes .

  17. Howell Morgan, as always, is absolutely right. People are becoming obsessed with the Welsh language. It is impossible to avoid, wherever you go in Wales. An English Language Society is desperately needed to preserve our mother tongue, and to prevent Wales from becoming a bilingual society. If that happens, then Wales will be finished, as overseas investors, especially American investors, will refuse to open new companies here. I was so glad to read that Plaid Cymru has finally turned its back on the extremists who want to speak and promote Welsh. We live in a fast-moving, flexible world, where businesses and capitalists can transfer finances in an instant. If Wales is to survive as a nation it has to drop its tired old ways and open its doors to the ‘real world’. Apart from English, the languages our children should be speaking are Mandarin, Hindi, Russian, and Portuguese. If we act swiftly, and drop Welsh from our school curriculum, we may – just may – survive as an economic entity.

  18. Len Dawson-Smith makes some really good points. As someone new to Wales from Norfolk I have been surprised by the extent of Welsh language infiltration. I can’t see its real need or advantage in my line of business – sustainable energy – and its cost is far too much in these dire economic times. As Len said, we’d be better off allowing our children access to ascending languages such as Mandarin, which should be compulsory, and Russian.

  19. As a parent who travels some 16 miles to Newcastle Emlyn to have my child in the English stream I read your comments with interest. It it worth noting that Ceredigion has a policy that if a child has been through a Welsh medium stream for 3 years or more then they have no right to be in an English stream and it is assumed – and pushed that they go in to a Welsh stream. As the majority of primary schools in south Ceredigion are all WM then the intake of the secondary schools are by design going to be mainly WM regardless of the views of the parents. It is also worth noting that Y Ddwylan in NCE has also now announced that it is looking to stop the EM stream – which means 2 things;

    1 – Where do we now send our children to be taught through an English stream
    2 – this will almost certainly have an effect on the secondary school in NCE which is the local EM secondary but has it’s main feed from Y Ddwylan.

    Where do we go from here?

    As parents we have the right to abort an unborn child, and the right to administer or refuse treatment if they are ill but the right to choose their education is being ripped from us (unless you don’t work and have all day to travel back and forth considerable mileage to the few EM schools in the area).

  20. “Where do we go from here?” Well Leon, this is a start:

    “The right to decide: an end to the compulsory teaching of Welsh to GCSE level”

    In the “Fate of the Language” survey carried out by the BBC in 2012 54% of people and 56% of non-Welsh speakers agreed that Welsh should not be compulsory in schools. As you would expect ALL political parties ignore the turning of the tide against compulsion in the teaching of Welsh.

  21. If you so desperately want to send your children to an English Medium school why not move back to England?

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