Welsh-medium education for all, or just for the lucky ones?


Ffred Ffransis says Welsh language education for those attending English medium schools is failing.

In Wales today, our education system is creating second class citizens. Some, because of the school they happen to attend, will be deprived of an essential educational skill because of a postcode lottery, how wealthy they are, or their parents’ choice.

That’s the situation. The vast majority of our young people are very unlikely to be able to speak Welsh on leaving school, and so they won’t have the chance to communicate or to work in our national language: a language which should be a common inheritance for everyone who lives here.

I write as one of those people who didn’t have the privilege of Welsh-medium education but learnt the language as an adult – but I’m a rare exception to the rule. Of the thousands who start learning as an adult, only 1% succeed in becoming fluent. So, for over three-quarters of our children in the current education system, school is equivalent to a lifetime stuck with the inability to communicate effectively in Welsh.

At the moment, 21% of our young people in Wales go to a Welsh-medium school, they leave with the ability to communicate and work in two languages – Welsh and English. On the other hand, 79% of young people go to English-medium education, and those who succeed in acquiring the two languages through that system are very very rare.

The public wants to put right that injustice. According to a YouGov opinion poll, 63% of people in Wales agree with us that not a single pupil should be deprived of their inheritance and the educational skill of the ability to communicate and work in Welsh and in English. It’s not fair that the present system places the vast majority of our pupils under disadvantage.

Pupils in English-medium schools receive what is known as “second language Welsh” education – they learn the language as a subject, not unlike the way foreign languages are taught. It’s a system which has been harshly criticised in an independent report by Professor Sioned Davies, a report commissioned by the Welsh Government. Speaking about the way Welsh is taught in English-medium schools, the report says: “If we are serious about developing Welsh speakers, and about seeing the Welsh language thrive, a change of direction is urgently required before it is too late … It is undeniably the eleventh hour for Welsh second language.”

Some argue it’s right that only some get a fair chance to learn Welsh, those who are lucky where they live because a Welsh-medium school is the closest, or lucky enough o be able to afford the extra cost of transport, or lucky to have parents who know that Welsh-medium education is available. Groups of parents have fought the system for decades, with the help of that vitally important group RhAG (Parents for Welsh-medium Education), and, have succeeded on many occasions, against the odds.

But it’s time to pose questions – is this a just state of affairs? Should parents have to fight for the right for their children to learn Welsh? Is it right that children, because of where they live, their financial situation, or because of lack of parental knowledge, are shut out of the language for the rest of their lives?

Our answer is unequivocal – it is not right. It is not just.

We are excluding some of our most deprived communities of the chance of work, unique cultural experiences and our common inheritance, namely our unique national language. Welsh Government policy is clear: Welsh-medium education is the best way to ensure children acquire fluency in Welsh.

Some, including some in Government, argue that Welsh-medium education is a matter of choice. We in Cymdeithas yr Iaith disagree. We believe it’s a right for every child to be able to work and communicate in Welsh – it should not depend on a parent’s whim, or how much money a family has, or a postcode lottery. 

We agree with the recommendations of Professor Sioned Davies’ group, namely that schools need to be moved along one continuum of teaching Welsh, so that every child gets at least a degree of teaching through the medium of Welsh as well as being taught it as a subject – whatever school they attend. For example, by having IT lessons in Welsh. As a result, the term “second language Welsh” would be no more. Instead there would be a use of Welsh across the curriculum and Welsh would be used as a medium of instruction in English-medium schools. And targets would be set to ensure more Welsh-medium teaching in those formerly English-medium schools.

There are lessons to learn about how we teach other languages in schools as well. There is increasing evidence that, instead of being a fetter on progress, bilingualism is very beneficial in individuals’ cognitive development. The ability to speak several languages is beneficial in very many ways. We should expect our education system to build on the advantage we have in this country, by developing trilingual education as well. Wales can lead the way in terms of teaching our children more languages to a higher standard.

If we want the Welsh language to thrive over the years to come, we must transform the current situation, so that the language becomes part of the inheritance of all who choose to make Wales their home, not just the lucky ones.

Ffred Ffransis is Chair of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg's Education Campaign Group.

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