Monday 12 December 2022

Legislating for Welsh


When I was a small child in primary school, we had an occasional lesson in Welsh. Our usual class teacher would leave the room, and a Welsh-speaking teacher would take over the class for a period. He usually proceeded to read us a story. In English. Somewhere, a box was duly ticked, and a class of monoglot English speakers had officially had their exposure to the language. My first real educational contact with the language didn’t happen until I went on to the grammar school. Welsh was compulsory for the first year, after which we were given a choice of continuing with Welsh or learning German. And it was fairly obvious that the teachers (with the exception of the Welsh teachers) thought that German was preferable. Prevailing attitudes at the time. It might be down to my long-term rebelliousness that I chose Welsh anyway. I eventually emerged with an average (grade 3 in old money) ‘O’ level pass, but unable to use the language in any meaningful way. Much like the French that I also learned.

The teaching of Welsh in English-medium schools has improved immeasurably since those days, although I have a sneaky suspicion that lurking behind the statistics and the boxes ticked the actual situation on the ground may not be quite as the official reports suggest. And we know for certain that Welsh lessons in English-medium schools, even though compulsory until the age of 16, are not generally turning out citizens who can use the language. The odd individual who does manage it – and I’ve known a few – is very much the exception, and those exceptions result more from personal determination and motivation than from simply attending lessons. If the objective is to build the number of Welsh speakers, the one thing that we know does work is Welsh-medium education (although there are still some serious questions about the way in which so many seem to ‘lose’ their Welsh after leaving school).

There are many things that the Welsh government need to do if they are serious about reaching the target of 1 million speakers by 2050, but given that adults find it harder to learn a new language – any language – than children, education is always going to be the most important; and it is Welsh-medium education that works best. The call by Cymdeithas yr Iaith and others for the government to ensure that all children are educated through the medium of Welsh highlights the one policy that could really make a difference, although it’s neither a simple nor a short term response. Getting non-Welsh speaking teachers to the point at which they can confidently and fluently teach their subjects through the medium of a second language, which they themselves have learned as an adult, is a massive undertaking. And getting there involves a great deal more than simply legislating for the outcome.

The negative response to the idea by the First Minister is disappointing, of course; but I can’t help feeling that there is some merit in the points he makes. It is far too easy for those of us committed to the cause of the language to believe that legislation will do the job, and I suspect that Drakeford is actually right to fear that trying to simply impose such a solution, even in the form of a decades-away target, will create something of a backlash (even if it were politically possible for any leader of Welsh Labour to suggest such a thing and carry his or her party with him or her). It would be a lot easier to suggest such an approach if we’d already achieved the first million and were looking to get to the second, but that’s a bit of a ‘chicken-and-egg’ argument. Such legislation is not a bad idea per se; but it looks premature, and had Drakeford found a way of expressing that, I’d have a lot more confidence that he was convinced about his own government’s aim.

The growth in Welsh-medium education has been a success story over the past 60 years, but it’s a growth which has largely been demand-led, fought for by determined campaigners, with authorities (usually, but not exclusively, Labour controlled) dragging their feet and being slow to respond to that demand. There are many children who have already missed out on the opportunity due to a lack of availability in their areas, and there is little doubt that there are children today being educated through the medium of English who would have been educated through the medium of Welsh had convenient provision been available. Speeding up the process of making that provision, training the educators, and getting to the point where future growth is more supply-led (Welsh-medium education is one of the few things where ‘build it and they will come’ actually seems to be a viable approach) than demand-led (with a requirement for comprehensive ‘proof’ of that demand before a new school is even planned) are entirely within the control of the Welsh government, and they are simply not doing as much as they could. The time for legislation will surely come in due course, but in the meantime there is a danger that premature demands for legislation that Drakeford can’t and won’t deliver diverts attention from those things which he can and should deliver. And on which he is failing.


dafis said...

Lots of good points there, John. As a product of the old fashioned Anglo dominated grammar school system here in Wales I am living proof that Welsh speakers could survive that process and prosper in later life. However I am hard pressed to recall any monoglot Anglos entering the system at 11 and leaving at 16/17/18 with a passable fluency in the language. The system back in the 60's was designed to iron out wrinkles like an affection for Welsh. The slow development of Ysgolion Cymraeg has been a force for good. We have witnessed it for over 50 years yet most authorities persist with the old "prove the need" attitude. There remains a barely concealed hostility towards the language within elements of Welsh Labour and the wider Unionist spectrum. These are people who revert to the old"waste of money" arguments or discover other more immediate deserving issues when anything relating to the language or its teaching is raised. Drakeford draws a significant slice of his support from this segment of negative attitudes and he knows it all too well. So I don't expect him to drive Welsh teaching forward at anything other than the push that we manage to shove him along.

Anonymous said...

What I have found surprising about the Welsh census results is the difference between the data produced every 10 years by the census and the regular results of the ONS Welsh language survey. The ONS results have shown a decline in the number and percentage of Welsh speakers until about 2007 and then a slow but steady rise until their most recent results in 2022 that indicate 29.7% or 899,500 of those over 3 years of age speaking Welsh.