On target for seven-year-old Welsh speakers reaching 25% by 2015

Michael Jones reports on progress with implementing the Welsh medium education strategy

In the spring of 2009 the then Welsh Minister of Education, Jane Hutt, launched the draft of the Government’s Strategy for Welsh Medium Education and a year later the Strategy became government policy under her successor Leighton Andrews. The current Labour Government intends to make this strategy statutory instead of advisory.

Last July the Education Minister, Leighton Andrews, published the first report on the progress made towards achieving the targets set for increasing the percentage of those children receiving Welsh medium education at the age of 7 (defined as those children assessed for Key Stage 1 through the medium of Welsh as a first language). In 2009 the figure was 21 per cent. The target is 25 per cent by 2015 and 30 per cent by 2020. In 2000 the percentage was 18.1 per cent and the first post strategy figure, for the summer of 2010 was 21.8 per cent, which augurs well for achieving 25 per cent by 2015.

In the IWA’s 2008 report Creating a Bilingual Wales Owen John Thomas divided the country into three groups of counties by reference to their existing percentage of Welsh speakers. The first group comprises the four counties with a population of over 50 per cent of Welsh speakers, namely Gwynedd, Ceredigion, Anglesey and Carmarthenshire. The second group of four has over 20 per cent who speak Welsh – Conwy, Denbigh, Powys and Pembrokeshire. The remaining 14 have less than 20 per cent of Welsh speakers.

The new report includes a bar chart setting out the percentages of children in Welsh medium education at the age of 7 in each of the 22 counties in 2000 and 2010. Unfortunately, however, there are no similar charts at Key Stages 2, 3 or 4 – that is, for children at 10, 13 and 16 years old. It is interesting to look at these figures against the record of each county in adding to the provision of Welsh-medium schools but it must be borne in mind that the chart shows percentages of each county’s cohort of children in each year and since about 1995 most counties have seen  falling rolls and a reduced overall cohort. If all Welsh medium places are taken up but the numbers in English medium schools fall, the Welsh percentage increases without any increase in the numbers of Welsh medium children. (Note that the percentages given hereafter are best estimates from the bar charts.)

1. Welsh speaking majority counties

Gwynedd has the highest percentage of children receiving Welsh education at the age of 7, having reached 100 per cent by 2010 compared with 95 per cent in 2000. This represents a county policy of compulsory Welsh primary education. Anecdotal evidence suggests a considerable tendency to exercise the available option of English medium secondary education, which is where charts for 13 and 16 year olds would be illuminating. Ironically Gwynedd’s level of success means that this county can make no further contribution to growth between now and 2020. Meanwhile, Ceredigion (75 per cent) and Anglesey (70 per cent) both show a marginal percentage growth since 2000. These three counties each have only one designated Welsh-medium primary school and clearly rely heavily on their ‘traditional’ Welsh-medium schools, but interestingly under the leadership of the governors the parents of the traditional Welsh-medium Cardigan Primary School have voted to convert it into a designated Welsh-medium primary with no classes giving English-medium instruction.

The most populous Welsh speaking county is Carmarthenshire where designated Welsh-medium primary schools are more numerous. There are eight in all and they are generally more highly regarded by parents than the Category A ‘traditional’ schools where the quality of Welsh provision is distinctly variable. The result is a demand for expansion of existing designated schools and an addition to their number. Nonetheless the percentage in the county did increase from 50 per cent to 55 per cent over the 11 years to 2010

2. Counties with a substantial Welsh-speaking population

The four counties of Conway, Denbighshire, Powys and Pembrokeshire all include areas with a majority Welsh speaking population and other very Anglicized areas. In Conway and Denbighshire the coastal areas and some inland towns have Welsh education by way of seven designated Welsh-medium primary schools, while the more rural and upland areas have ‘traditional’ village schools. Both these counties have made modest increases in their percentages to a level at or just below 25 per cent and again there has been a school in Conwy, Penmaenmawr, where the parents have voted for it to become a designated Welsh-medium school.

Powys with many Welsh speakers in Montgomeryshire and southwest Breconshire has two Welsh-medium primaries in Breconshire, Welsh units scattered all over its three component counties, and ‘traditional’ schools in rural Montgomeryshire. These enabled it to increase its percentage of Welsh speakers at 7 years from about 13 per cent to 17 per cent.

Pembrokeshire has long had a Welsh north and an English south. In the north ‘traditional’ schools provide Welsh primary education while in the south there is one designated Welsh primary and two schools with Welsh units. With these resources Pembrokeshire achieved a growth in Welsh medium education at 7 from 16 per cent to 22 per cent.

Anglicized counties

(i) North-east Wales

Like the 12 counties in the south Flintshire and Wrexham provide Welsh medium education exclusively in designated schools. As Owen John Thomas noted, Flintshire has not seen an additional primary since 1971. It is no surprise that the percentage in Welsh medium education remained the same in 2010 as in 2000 at 6 per cent.

Apparently Wrexham did even worse falling from 10 per cent in 2000 to 9.5 per cent in 2010. However, investigation has disclosed two special factors. First, there was a considerable inflow of families from England filling the English-medium schools; and second, the school at Cefn Mawr on the border between Wrexham and Denbighshire, originally designed by the old Clwyd County Council to serve Cefn Mawr and Llangollen, after county reorganisation suffered a substantial reduction in numbers due to Denbighshire opening its own school for Llangollen following the county reorganisation in 1996.  It is only now tht the school is beginning to recover. Wrexham is now planning to open its sixth Welsh-medium primary school on the basis of a survey of parental wishes carried out pursuant to the new strategy.

(ii) South-east Wales

Here the remaining 12 counties can be divided into 4 groups:

  • The consistent providers – Cardiff, Caerphilly and Swansea.
  • The compliant authorities – Newport, Torfaen and the Vale of Glamorgan.
  • The non-compliant authorities – Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Merthyr, Monmouth and Neath Port Talbot.
  • Rhondda Cynon Taf, the prodigal son.

The consistent providers

Since Owen John Thomas wrote in 2008, Cardiff has opened another two schools and added a third stream to Ysgol Pwll Coch in Leckwith. As he recorded, in 2008 the intake was 560. These were the children aged 7 in 2010 that the Strategy Report noted as forming 15 per cent of the Cardiff cohort compared with 9.5 per cent in 2000. The intake in 2011 is 657, up by about 16 per cent over three years. One cannot forecast a percentage of the overall cohort by 2013, as numbers in English-medium schools have started to grow in Cardiff. Nonetheless, this increase should make it substantially higher.

Likewise Caerphilly has opened another primary since 2008 and has plans to move Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Caerffili into larger premises later this year, plans approved by the Education Minister for which the council has provided funding. It showed a percentage growth from 10.5 per cent to 13 per cent over the 11 years to 2010.

Up to the 1990s Swansea’s growth was held back by a Director of Education much opposed to Welsh-medium education. However, since then it has grown consistently, showing an increase from 8 per cent to 13 per cent in 2010. Further growth will follow from the opening in 2011 of schools in Morriston and Bonymaen consequent upon a parental survey, plus a future new school in Gowerton to serve North Gower.

The compliant authorities

Newport, Torfaen and the Vale of Glamorgan are authorities which have followed the new strategy in all respects, by first carrying out a survey to ascertain parental wishes, publishing it and acting when it became apparent that there was a substantial unmet demand for Welsh medium education.

Newport increased the intake to its one existing school, opened a second in 2009, doubled its intake in 2010, and then opened a third in September 2011. The report under consideration shows a small percentage growth from 3 per cent to 4 per cent between 2000 and 2010. However, by summer 2013 the number of children in Welsh-medium education at the age of 7 will be 150 as against the 30 of 2000 and the percentage will be substantially higher.

Torfaen showed substantial growth of Welsh school population at 7 in its two primaries resulting in an increase of percentages from 3 per cent in 2000 to 9 per cent in 2010. This does not include the effect of opening of a third primary in 2010 in response to the outcome of a parental survey in 2010. The children in this school will first be assessed at the age of 7 in the summer of 2013 contributing to a further percentage increase.

The Vale of Glamorgan shows a satisfactory growth over the 11-year period from 10 per cent to 13 per cent. It was striking that a survey in 2009 showed a demand from 20 per cent of the Vale’s parents for Welsh-medium education. Within a month of receiving and publishing the survey the Vale adopted a scheme to increase the intake at one school by 10 pupils a year, to open two additional schools as soon as possible, and to relocate another school in larger premises with a view to increasing its intake. The first school was expanded in time for September 2010, the two new schools opened in September 2011 and only the relocation remains to be carried out.

The response of these three authorities demonstrates what can be achieved if parental wishes are ascertained and receive the response which Welsh Government policy urges and shortly will require by statute.

The non-compliant authorities

With one exception the five authorities in this category show either no growth or very small growth between 2000 and 2010. With two exceptions they have not opened an additional primary for between 20 and 35 years.

Neath Port Talbot, which includes the Swansea Valley between Pontardawe and Ystalyfera, did open a new primary in 1999 and has carried out two parental surveys, both of which it refuses to publish. This is an area with a good historical record for Welsh-medium provision, with 15.5 per cent in Welsh education in 2000 but actually falling to 15 per cent by 2010. Here the Minister needs to intervene with his statutory powers.

Blaenau Gwent, Merthyr and Bridgend show no or miniscule growth and have carried out no parental surveys. Again, the inaction of these authorities calls for ministerial intervention, which for reasons unconnected with Welsh-medium education occurred in Blaenau Gwent towards the end of 2011.

Monmouth shows a growth from 1 per cent in 2000 to 6 per cent in 2010 due to the growth of their one school in Abergavenny, and the opening and subsequent growth of their second school at Caldicot. Monmouth has not acted to meet the demand for a school in Monmouth, the need for which is demonstrated by the numbers who make the long journey to Abergavenny daily. There is also a need for a fourth school to serve the area around Usk.

No surveys have been published by these four non-compliant counties.

The prodigal son

When it was part of Glamorgan County Council up to 1974, and then Mid Glamorgan up to 1996 ,Rhondda Cynon Taf was the area in the southeast with the best provision of Welsh-medium schools and the highest percentage of Welsh-medium pupils as the 16 per cent it recorded  in 2000 confirms. At the same time  the area was also the site of bitter battles between parents and the local education authority which resulted in Mid Glamorgan opening no less than eight additional schools or units within the area of Rhondda Cynon Taf in its 22 years of existence.

Yet since then, Rhondda Cynon Taf has failed to open a single additional Welsh-medium school over the past 15 years, though it has made additional space available at some existing schools. Thus it has contrived to increase the percentage in 2000 to 20.5 per cent by 2010, substantially the highest in southeast Wales. However, this reflects overcrowded Welsh medium schools and English medium schools with many empty spaces.

Rhondda Cynon Taf has carried out two surveys of parental wishes, in the catchment areas of Aberdare Welsh primary and in the areas of two adjacent schools, Castellau and Gartholwg primaries. Both disclosed an unmet need for places amounting to at least one stream in each of the two areas surveyed. Yet the local education authority refused to act on the grounds that they had failed to appoint a head for a Welsh medium school in the Rhondda Fach and feared that if they opened two new schools they would not be able to staff them.

However, during 2011 Rhonda Cynon Taf faced a level of demand substantially above the places available at Llantrisant Welsh-medium school and at Llwyncelyn in Porth, and were unable to place the children in any neighbouring Welsh school. The parents in each case formed a substantial group and were able to create a good deal of adverse publicity for the local authority. After consideration of numerous expedients the council has made interim provision for 2011-2012 but has conceded that it must now start opening additional Welsh medium schools.

The first, where proposals have gone to consultation, will involve the opening of a Llanhari Primary in surplus accommodation at Llanhari Welsh Comprehensive where numbers have fallen due to Bridgend having opened its own Welsh comprehensive at Llangynwyd. The catchment area for the new school will be formed by reducing the size of the catchments of Llantrisant and Y Dolau Welsh Primaries. Further proposals involve provision of a new for old school in Tonyrefail, temporary further provision in Porth, Rhondda, with a new school to follow and a new school in the mid-Cynon to relieve pressure on Aberdare and Abercynon Welsh Primaries, all included in the Government’s 21st Century Schools programme.

So at the last minute RCT has repented of its opposition to Welsh medium expansion and can be welcomed home by its own Assembly Member Leighton Andrews, namely the Welsh Minister of Education.

It will be apparent that the response of the local education authorities has been and continues to be variable. Although some counties, fortunately with large populations like Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and the Vale of Glamorgan, are responding well and will contribute substantial numbers to the all Wales percentage target of 30 per cent, there are backsliders who need to be brought into compliance. Statutory sanctions should oblige them to comply with parental wishes which some councillors obviously do not wish to know while others prefer to ignore.

Michael Jones is southeast Wales coordinator for Rhieni Dros Addysg Cymru (Parents for Welsh-medium Education). This article features in the current Spring edition of the IWA's journal, The Welsh Agenda.

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