Welsh-medium Education Strategy ... first thoughts

I've held back from commenting on the WMES while I tried to get to grips with all 116 pages of it. If anyone wants to do the same, it's here:

Press Release
Full Consultation Document

I've only read it once, so I might well have missed some important things, but here are my initial thoughts.

One thing that puzzled me from the news reports was the target of 25% of 7 year olds being in WM education by 2015. The percentage of primary school children in WM education is very close to that already (23.07%) so it appeared to be a case of setting so easy a target that you are guaranteed a pat on the back for achieving it.

In fact the target is for 25% of KS1 assessments to be made in Welsh. That figure is currently 21.0%, so it is a slightly harder target to meet, but still not all that ambitious.

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The Consultation Document sets out six strategic aims:

Strategic Aim 1: To improve the planning of Welsh-medium provision in the pre-statutory and statutory phases of education, on the basis of positive response to parental demand

Strategic Aim 2: To improve the planning of Welsh-medium provision in the post-14 phases of education and training, to take account of linguistic progression and continued development of skills

Strategic Aim 3: To ensure that all learners develop their Welsh-language skills to their full potential and encourage sound linguistic progression from one phase of education and training to the next

Strategic Aim 4: To ensure a planned Welsh-medium education workforce that provides sufficient numbers of practitioners for all phases of education and training, with high-quality Welsh-language skills and competence in teaching methodologies

Strategic Aim 5: To improve the central support mechanisms for Welsh-medium education and training

Strategic Aim 6: To contribute to the acquisition and reinforcement of Welsh-language skills in families, in the workplace and in the community

I think these aims are quite sound. One thing I wasn't expecting which is included is an examination of the way that we teach Welsh as a second language in EM schools. That is very welcome. We mustn't lose sight of what the end result should be, namely that every child who grows up in Wales should be able to speak both English and Welsh.

WM education is only a means to that end. It should, theoretically, be possible for EM education to deliver that end result too. It does do that for some children, but only a small percentage. The growth in demand for WM education is largely the result of EM education failing to deliver what it should have started to deliver when Welsh was made a core subject in the national curriculum in 1990. In marked contrast WM education nearly always produces children who are proficient in both languages. That's why the demand is so high.

There is a long standing consensus in Wales about the importance of teaching children to speak Welsh. This is from a survey in 2000:

[Welsh] is important for Welsh culture ... 89% (84% net)
[Welsh is] something everyone can be proud of ... 83% (78% net)
It is important that children learn to speak [Welsh] ... 81% (74% net)
[Welsh] belongs to everybody in Wales ... 80% (71% net)

Source

The net figure is obtained by subtracting those who disagree from those who agree, so only 7% think that it is not important for children to learn to speak Welsh.

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The two things I was expecting: namely the requirement for local authorities to survey demand among parents of very young children, and the need to dramatically improve the supply of teachers able to teach in Welsh, are both there.

My only comment is that it is appears to be putting the cart before the horse to set a target of 25% without knowing what the surveys are going to reveal. It would be far more useful to make the commitment to meet the actual surveyed demand. But in practical terms we know (from the few surveys that have been conducted to date) that the parental demand is going to be far higher than 25% ... so the real problem is logistics: providing enough staff and enough suitable school buildings to meet that demand.

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One thing that isn't included that I would have liked to be there is some revision of the statutory mechanisms for consulting on school amalgamations and closures in order to provide sufficient physical capacity to meet the increase in demand for WM education that they are aiming for. It goes without saying that if the percentage in WM education goes up by 4 points, the percentage in EM education will go down by the same amount.

There is a mention of it here:

• To expect local authorities (as provided for in the draft circular on School Organisation Proposals) to consider demand for, and access to, Welsh-medium provision when planning and bringing forward statutory proposals to change school provision.

But I think that's far too vague. To give a concrete example: in Canton, West Cardiff there is a real need to increase WM primary age provision. There are 4 EM schools, each one of which could be closed with the remaining three easily able to meet the local demand for EM places between them. But instead of being able to put forward a proposal along the lines of "which one of these schools would it be least disruptive to close?" (which would encourage a consensus among parents in the whole community) the formal statutory process must single out just one school for closure. A few years ago Cardiff chose Radnor (and failed to get it through) now they have chosen Lansdowne. To the parents of children in either this must appear to be some sort of arbitrary choice ... as if they, and they alone, have been "picked on". Choices like this are always going to be difficult, but as a matter of principle they must surely include the whole community affected. That's my greatest disappointment in the document.

But it is only a consultation document at this stage, so I have twelve weeks to make my points in the hope of revising the final strategy document ... and so does everyone else. We can even do it online.

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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

the important thing here, and John Dixon raises it on his blog too http://borthlas.blogspot.com/ is that if the strategy is to have children at 16 fluent in Welsh and English, then only Welsh medium education works.

Welsh provision is just not effective enough. It doesn't work.

Supporters of Welsh, RhAG (www.rhag.net) etc need to stay on their toes.

MH said...

I read what John wrote on Borthlas and agree with him, especially about the situation in Sir Gar. I am also completely in favour of WM education, and would urge any parent to choose that option as the best and easiest way for their children to become proficient in both languages. But it is for parents to make that decision, not national or local government.

So we need to frame a policy that reflects these two principles:

1. There is a consensus that every child growing up in Wales should be able to speak both Welsh and English (that is a non-negotiable basic, English, Welsh, maths and science are compulsory core subjects)
2. Not every parent wants WM education, some will prefer the majority of their children's education to be in English, and that must be respected.

The only way I can see to be true to both these principles is to ensure that children can become proficient in Welsh through EM education.

That's where I take issue with your assertion that WM education is the "only" way to be proficient in both languages. "Best" I have no problem with, but not "only". In very round numbers 20% of children are in WM education, but some 40% speak the language. Of course it is difficult to precisely (or consistently) quantify what level of proficiency that represents, but the fact that 60% are classed as not being able to speak Welsh (even though every child is taking lessons) must mean it is more than being able to string a few sentences together. In other words, roughly 20% (a quarter of the 80% in EM education) do become proficient in Welsh through EM education. It can be done, it just isn't being done well enough at present.

The goal is for every child to be proficient in Welsh and English. But, even in purely practical terms, we could not rely solely on WM eduction to achieve it because our resources (i.e. the numbers of teachers trained to teach all subjects in Welsh) are already stretched. The WMES does address this problem, which is welcome, but it is impossible to solve in just a few years. Think of the good teachers we have that do not speak Welsh, it would be unfair to throw them to one side.

So I think we need to have a two-pronged approach: to expand WM education on one hand, certainly, but to improve the teaching of Welsh in EM schools as well. Doing the second will do more, and more quickly, to bring about the end result than concentrating only on the first.

In practical terms that means better teachers (i.e. using teachers who are trained to teach Welsh, rather than teachers who are trained to teach other subjects and happen to speak Welsh) and it means doing more than just the basic couple of formal Welsh lessons a week in EM schools. That could be other subjects, or it could be other school activities. We should aim to have every child take a Welsh GCSE (at present some 12,000 take no exam in Welsh of any sort) and phase out the "easy option" of the short course GCSE. That is all in the proposal. All that is lacking is to put a timescale on it. I would say it should be five years.

In terms of the long term goals I think we should be aiming for every child to be taking the much more demanding Welsh First Language GCSE within twenty years ... measuring our yearly progress towards that goal by the percentage that take and pass it.

I fully accept that these are ambitious targets but, to put them in perspective, in just the past ten years the number of people taking:

a Welsh GCSE of some sort has increased from 12,911 to 26,721 ... +108.9%
Welsh first language from 4,007 to 5,436 ... +35.7%
Welsh second language from 8,904 to 21,285 ... +139.0%

(There are roughly 38,000 children in the cohort, but that number is falling.)

There has been a massive change in the past ten years, there is no reason to expect the pace of change to lessen. It's primarily a question of aiming our resources in the right direction.

Reference for stats

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