Whither the Welsh Medium Teacher?

A decline in the number of schoolteachers able to work in Welsh risks the target of 1 million Welsh speakers. Dilwyn Roberts-Young calls on the Welsh Government to act.

In a report published on August 6th this year, the Welsh Language Commissioner called for ‘significant intervention’ in order to ensure ‘the radical increase needed in the number of teachers able to teach through the medium of Welsh’.

There was a strong emphasis within the document on the need for ‘an inclusive strategy’ which would focus on improving ‘the Welsh-language skills of all trainee teachers, rather than one confined to a particular cohort of Welsh-medium trainees’. 

The report coincided with the annual report from the Education Workforce Council (EWC) which indicated a sharp decline in the number of successful trainee teachers since the turn of the millennium.

The 2002-2003 academic year saw 1,910 successful candidates achieve Qualified Teacher Status whilst the current figure is 970 successful candidates. There has been a decline in the number of schoolteachers able to work through the medium of Welsh over recent years from 10,205 in 2015 to 9,556 in 2019 with a 33.1% to 26.9% drop in the percentage of the workforce.

In its vision for a million Welsh speakers by 2050, the Welsh Government has identified education as a ‘principal method for ensuring that children can develop their Welsh language skills, and for creating new speakers’. Workforce planning is therefore a crucial element in ensuring that the teaching of Welsh is supported by a thriving, engaged and enthused teaching community.

The past six months have been unprecedented in terms of the challenges facing the teaching profession. We have witnessed remote teaching, childcare in centralised hubs, the development and sharing of educational resources whilst ensuring the health, safety and well-being of pupils and students. Teachers and headteachers have balanced this with caring for their own families and supporting their colleagues and the wider community.

With the devolution of schoolteachers’ pay and conditions we have an opportunity to make policy decisions which are appropriate for the workforce in Wales.”

There has been some evidence garnered during this period that teaching is being recognised as a ‘valued profession’ which was the title of the report of the independent review published by Welsh Government in September 2018. 

The report considered pay and conditions, a recently devolved matter, in relation to the ‘national mission for education’ in Wales. It contained recommendations, some of which are due to be pursued by a panel under the heading of ‘Reimagining Education’.

Now is certainly an opportune moment for some fresh thinking about various aspects of our education system, including how to embed the Welsh language in all aspects of education policy.  

Without doubt a stumbling block in terms of attracting new teachers is the overwhelming workload and bureaucracy associated with teaching. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Talks have recently resumed between trade unions and associations, Welsh Government, local government, regional consortia and other key stakeholders such as the Education Workforce Council and Estyn. 

With the devolution of schoolteachers’ pay and conditions we have an opportunity to make policy decisions which are appropriate for the workforce in Wales. As we embed the new approach to ensuring that decisions are made in response to the needs of teachers and headteachers in Wales we have been pragmatic in our expectations. 

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However, we are now moving to a phase where we can make a real difference and  enhance the profession in ways that should have a positive impact on both recruitment and retention. 

During this period, we have seen an emphasis on professional development and identifying key areas of training in response to the needs of staff and pupils. There appears to be a growing relationship between initial teacher training providers and schools which recognises the need for continuous, structured training and clear career paths. This is an overdue and very welcome development.

There need to be ample opportunities for teachers to learn Welsh and to improve their Welsh language skills including further investment in sabbatical courses and alternative approaches to learning the language.

The report from the Welsh Commissioner’s office states that “what is needed is not a supplementary strategy for Welsh-medium teachers, but rather a teacher training and development strategy that reflects the vision of a bilingual Wales”. 

UCAC welcomes this recommendation as part of a holistic approach to ensuring the workforce needed to make teaching an attractive, rewarding career and which will achieve the aspiration of a million Welsh speakers by 2050.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Dilwyn Roberts-Young is General Secretary of the teaching union Undeb Cenedlaethol Athrawon Cymru.

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