Not enough Welsh-speaking teachers

Michael Haggett says two of the Welsh Government’s fundamental education commitments are doomed to failure unless urgent action is taken

This story in WalesOnline about head teachers getting younger reminded me that the General Teaching Council of Wales publishes an annual digest of statistics about teachers and newly qualified teachers. This year’s digest is here.

One thing about the statistics is depressingly constant: there is no significant increase in the numbers of teachers who speak Welsh or are able to teach in Welsh. These are the figures for all teachers in Wales, click the image to enlarge it:

The percentage of Welsh-speaking teachers would, at first sight, appear to have gone up slightly from 31.7 per cent to 32.5 per cent over the last five years. But the number of teachers that can’t speak Welsh has also gone up … and by even more. All that has actually changed is that the percentage of teachers whose language ability is unknown has gone down. Exactly the same is true for those who are able to teach in Welsh; the apparent small increase from 26.0 per cent to 26.9 per cent is more than offset by the increase in the percentage who can’t teach in Welsh.

These are the figures for newly qualified teachers registered in Wales:

At least there are no unknowns in these figures, but the increases from 32.3 per cent to 32.8 per cent and 24.9 per cent to 25.3 per cent are so small as to be insignificant. We can also see that the General Teaching Council of Wales is persisting with the absurdity of thinking that teachers who can’t even speak Welsh, let alone speak it well enough to teach in Welsh, are competent to teach it as a second language. This unprofessionalism (there is simply no other word for it) is the main reason why the standard of Welsh taught in non Welsh-medium schools is so poor.

These figures are terrible because they will adversely effect the Welsh Government’s ability to deliver two of its fundamental educational commitments: the Welsh-medium Education Strategy and the Framework for Learning for the new Foundation Phase.

Welsh-medium Education Strategy

The Welsh-medium Education Strategy was published in 2010 and is available here. Fairly obviously, all teachers in Welsh-medium schools (and the Welsh stream of dual stream schools) need to be able do more than speak Welsh, they need to be able to teach in Welsh. But only 26.9 per cent of the current pool of teachers in Wales can do so, and only 25.3 per cent of newly qualified teachers can do so, which means the pool is actually diminishing rather than growing.

The Welsh-medium Education Strategy targets for the percentage of children assessed in Welsh to first language standard at Year 2 is 25 per cent by 2015 and 30 per cent by 2020. For Year 9 the figures are 19 per cent and 23 per cent. These targets simply cannot be met without a broadly proportionate number of teachers who are able to teach in Welsh, particularly in the primary sector. In fact the percentage of teachers needed might well be higher because many traditional Welsh-medium schools are in more rural areas with smaller schools and lower than average pupil to teacher ratios.

It’s very hard to draw any conclusion other than that the Welsh-medium Education Strategy is heading for ignominious failure unless urgent action is taken to turn things around. So far there have been two interim reports on progress to meet the targets in it, which I talked about here and here. Between the first and second reports the percentage of Key Stage 1 assessments in Welsh to first language standard (Outcome 1) was up only 0.1 per cent to 21.9 per cent, and the percentage of Key Stage 3 assessments in Welsh to first language standard (Outcome 2) was up only 0.3 per cent to 16.3 per cent. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the minuscule increase in Welsh first language assessments goes hand-in-hand with the minuscule increase in newly qualified teachers who can teach in Welsh.

Foundation Phase Framework for Learning

The Framework for Learning is the curriculum that governs the new Foundation Phase for all 3 to 7 year-olds in Wales. It is available here. There are seven major areas of learning, one of which is Welsh.

It’s important to realize that this focus on Welsh in the Foundation Phase applies to all schools in Wales, not just Welsh-medium schools. The Framework for Learning spells this out very clearly:

“In schools and settings where English is the main medium of communication, children’s Welsh language skills should be progressively developed throughout the Foundation Phase by implementing the Welsh Language Development Area of Learning.

During the Foundation Phase, children should learn to use and communicate in Welsh to the best of their ability. Children should listen to Welsh being spoken and respond appropriately in familiar situations, using a range of patterns. They should be encouraged to communicate their needs in Welsh and should be increasingly exposed to Welsh.

Skills are developed through communicating in a range of enjoyable, practical planned activities, and using a range of stimuli that build on and increase children’s previous knowledge and experiences, in safe and stimulating indoor and outdoor learning environments. The children’s oral experiences should be used to develop their reading skills and they should be encouraged to choose and use Welsh reading materials. They should listen to a range of stimuli, including audio-visual material and ICT interactive software in Welsh. Children should be given a range of opportunities to enjoy mark-making and develop their writing skills in Welsh. Language skills learned in one language should support the development of knowledge and skills in another.”

I’ve highlighted the phrase “to the best of their ability” for this reason. As the growth of Welsh-medium education in all parts of Wales demonstrates, children can become competent Welsh speakers to first language standard even when their parents cannot themselves speak Welsh and in areas where very little Welsh is spoken outside school. This shows that every child (except maybe those who have special learning needs) has the ability to use Welsh and communicate in Welsh. So the thing holding children back in non Welsh-medium schools is clearly not their ability to learn Welsh, but the ability of their teachers to teach them Welsh.

This has profound implications. For if we take the Framework for Learning with even an ounce of seriousness, it means that teachers who teach children in the Foundation Phase need to be able to speak Welsh, irrespective of the language category of the school they teach in.

In January of this year, Estyn published a report on Welsh in the Foundation Phase which said this about teaching in non Welsh-medium schools:

“Generally, when practitioners’ own Welsh is fluent, children’s progress in learning Welsh is better. These practitioners use Welsh consistently across all areas of learning. Where there are no confident Welsh-speaking practitioners in a school or setting, the use of Welsh by staff is usually more limited. This means that children hear less Welsh and have less opportunity to practise it. Where there are gaps in practitioners’ knowledge, particularly in the grammar, intonation and pronunciation of Welsh, children can learn to speak or pronounce incorrectly. In a few cases, practitioners cannot sustain using Welsh long enough and use a very limited amount of incidental Welsh with the children.

Most settings and schools have very few fluent Welsh-speaking practitioners and many use Welsh television programmes or DVDs to try to compensate for this, so that children can hear more spoken Welsh. However, this approach does not secure sustained progress in learning.”

In many respects this is a statement of the obvious. The General Teaching Council of Wales’s statistics show that only 32.5 per cent of teachers speak Welsh, and presumably even fewer speak it fluently. Most of these teachers are teaching in Welsh-medium schools (they wouldn’t get a job in a Welsh-medium school unless they could) and that means there must be very few Welsh-speaking teachers left over to teach in other schools. There’s no exact breakdown, but perhaps as few as one in ten teachers in non Welsh-medium schools can speak Welsh.

As I see it, there really is only one practical solution to these problems. The Welsh Government must do whatever it takes to substantially increase the number of primary school teachers who can speak Welsh and teach in Welsh.

No-one would want to put existing teachers out of work, so I think it is better for us to focus our efforts on the way we train new teachers. At present, the minimum requirement to be accepted to train as a primary school teacher is an A*-C GCSE in English, maths and a science. We need to extend this (for Foundation Phase teachers at least) to include an A*-C GCSE in Welsh first language as well, or for prospective teachers to be tested to an equivalent standard. Teaching in Welsh as well as English then needs to be made an integral part of the training course.

The Welsh Government will not be able to meet the targets it has set itself in either the Welsh-medium Education Strategy or the Foundation Phase Framework for Learning unless it takes this sort of radical action.

Michael Haggett blogs regularly on Welsh matters at Syniadau, where this post first appeared.

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