Crunching the Welsh GCSE numbers

Following yesterday's post, I've done a bit more number crunching regarding the trends in numbers taking Welsh GCSEs over the past twelve years. As a picture paints a thousand words, I've condensed this down to two charts. Click the images to open them at a larger size.

For those that like numbers, the full data can be downloaded as a spreadsheet from here. In summary, the basic trends are:

• The percentage taking WFL has risen fairly steadily to now stand at 14%. However this is still a good way below the 20% that would be expected based on those attending WM schools.

• The WSL short course exam was introduced on a pilot basis in 1999, and was fully fledged from 2001 onwards. This coincided with Welsh becoming compulsory at Key Stage 4. As a result, there was a large fall in the percentage not taking any Welsh GCSE from more than 60% to less than 40%

• Since then the percentage not taking any Welsh GCSE has fallen, but more gradually, and now stands at 29%

• After 2004 (i.e. five years after 1999) there was a marked shift in the percentages taking the full and short course versions of the WSL GCSE. The percentages taking both versions have increased since then, but the figure for those taking the full version has not returned to the 2004 level.

There is some concern over the usefulness of the WSL short course, and in particular that the numbers of children taking the full WSL GCSE dropped as a result of its introduction. This was briefly mentioned in the BBC's story yesterday:

Derek Stockley, the WJEC's director of examinations and assessment, said: "I think on the whole the results are heartening and we congratulate the pupils and their teachers for their success. But there are certain things that leap out at us as we look at the results.

"It's worrying that there are still more people doing the Welsh second language short course than the full course. That's not desirable either educationally or linguistically for the future of the Welsh language in Wales and for our students."

BBC - 27 August 2009

My own view is slightly different. I think that 11,000 children not taking any form of Welsh Second Language GCSE at all is a much bigger problem than whether children in EM schools take the full or short GCSE. So I would be quite happy to see the numbers taking the short GCSE increase further, provided that the numbers taking the full GCSE also increase. We need to reach the point where all children take some form of Welsh GCSE.

That said, I think there are some fundamental problems about how we teach Welsh in EM schools. In essence we need to supplement the formal lessons by using Welsh in other situations, so as to reinforce what has been learned. Indeed this is exactly what has started to happen. It is well worth reading this report by Estyn on teaching Welsh as a second language in English-medium schools.


However, I would still encourage every parent who wants their children to be able to speak Welsh—and it is worth repeating the fact that 81% of people in Wales think it is important that children learn to speak Welsh, with only 7% disagreeing—to send them to a Welsh-medium school. As things stand at present, it is by far the best way of ensuring that our children grow up equally competent in both languages.

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Welsh Language GCSE results

One of the things I look for when the GCSE results come out are the results for Welsh. Not particularly at the percentage of passes or grades achieved (which tends to creep up by a small fraction every year, in common with all GCSE subjects) but at the number of entries.

The figures for Wales this year, compared with last year, are:

Welsh First Language
5,254 entries (was 5,436) ... down 182 or 3.348%

Welsh Second Language (full course)
9,989 entries (was 10,044) ... down 55 or 0.548%

Welsh Second Language (short course)
11,485 entries (was 11,235) ... up 250 or 2.225%

26,728 entries (was 26,715) ... up 13 or 0.049%


Of course these figures need to be set into the context of a general fall in pupil numbers year on year. There is no precise way of knowing the size of the Welsh cohort from these JCQ figures. However we do know from Schools in Wales, 2008 (table 1.4) that the size of the year group (in both maintained and independent schools) in 2007/08 was 38,725 and that in 2006/07 it was 39,364. Last year's figure for the year below was 37,752 ... which is the best available estimate for this year's figure, although it will not be exactly right because of children leaving or coming to Wales.

To corroborate this in a different way, the numbers who took GCSE English in Wales this year was 37,651, as opposed to 38,737 last year. It's fairly safe to assume that nearly every child takes GCSE English, and the small difference reflects those who are retaking the exam to improve their grade and adults taking the exam on one hand, offset by those who do not take the exam (in the main due to having SENs) on the other. These roughly balance each other out.

This means that there are about 11,000 children taking GCSEs in Wales who did not take any form of Welsh GCSE this year.


For me, this is a source of major concern. We must surely aim for a situation in which every child is expected to take a GCSE in Welsh, in just the same way as we expect them to take a GCSE in English. Of course I would not want to make light of the problems concerned with the value of GCSEs, and in particular the short course WSL GCSE. Neither would I claim that passing either the full or the short WSL GCSE is an indication that you can "speak Welsh" (although having a WFL GCSE obviously is). There is much that can and should be done to improve the teaching of Welsh as a second language.

My point is that the numbers taking a GCSE are some indication of our children's competence in Welsh. And, in particular, that not taking any GCSE in Welsh after eleven years of Welsh lessons is an indication that we are still failing to adequately impart even a basic grounding in Welsh to more than a quarter of our children.


Now of course I will take some comfort from the fact that the overall number taking some form of Welsh GCSE has gone up again this year, even though the number of children taking GCSEs has fallen by roughly 1,000. That's good. Once again Welsh has bucked the trend ... although only just!

However this year's entry numbers in fact mark quite a significant slowdown in the rate of growth that we have seen over the past few years. This time last year, there was a much bigger improvement on the 2007 figures:

Welsh First Language
5,436 entries (was 5,183) ... up 253 or 4.881%

Welsh Second Language (full course)
10,044 entries (was 9,629) ... up 415 or 4.310%

Welsh Second Language (short course)
11,235 entries (was 10,486) ... up 749 or 7.143%

26,715 entries (was 25,298) ... up 1,417 or 5.603%


Indeed, over the ten years up to 2008 the increase had been quite astounding:

Welsh First Language
From 4,007 to 5,436 ... +35.7%

Welsh Second Language (both courses)
From 8,904 to 21,285 ... +139.0%

From 12,911 to 26,721 ... +108.9%

Put into this context, the figures for this year, even though they have increased, are quite disappointing.


I am particularly saddened that the numbers taking the WFL GCSE have declined. All the indications from the number of children attending Welsh Medium schools are that this figure should be rising. If, in rough terms, some 20% are in WM education, we should expect some 20% to be taking the WFL GCSE. 20% of 37,000 is 7,400 ... so something like two thousand children are taking an easier Welsh GCSE than they should.

There are two factors at play: The first is that some children who could take WFL are taking WSL instead because they are virtually guaranteed to get an A* or A grade. This benefits a child who might otherwise struggle to get the required number of good grades for their future career choice, but also makes the school look better than it otherwise would. The second is that there are still some parts of Wales where a child who is fluent in Welsh from attending a WM primary is given no opportunity to maintain that progress if s/he goes to an EM secondary. Carmarthenshire in particular has a very low percentage of children in WM secondaries compared to those in WM primaries. We need to ensure that all EM secondaries have graded Welsh language streams so that those who have progressed further are not held back.


All in all these figures show that we cannot take the momentum of the previous decade for granted. We must push ahead with plans for more children to take the WFL GCSE, since this is the only standard which is equivalent to an English language GCSE. But we must also ensure that all children take a WSL GCSE of some sort. This time last year I thought it would take about seven years to achieve it. Perhaps I now need to revise that timescale to ten years. But either way, we need to act with renewed urgency now.

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A waste of £15m?

One of the sillier comments of the week so far has been from the Conservatives. William Graham had just found out that £15m was spent on design development for the new M4 across the Gwent Levels in the period from 1998 to 2008 ... and called it a waste.

     Axed M4 relief road 'cost £15m' - BBC website, 24 August 2009

A simple question. Is it better to spend £15m in order to find out whether or not a road scheme is viable ... or is it better to just go ahead and build it anyway in the hope that the £15m spent on design development will somehow go un-noticed?

Actually, the second is not such a bad option ... if you're a "particular sort" of politician, that is. You simply give the go ahead on the basis that the last estimates indicated that the road would cost £350m. It then turns out, a year or so later, that the cost has almost tripled. Too late to do anything about it then, of course. And anyway, who is going to notice or care about £15m when the cost has gone up by £650m?


As William Graham found out, more than half the cost has been spent in the past two years. So he sees an opportunity for a bit of mischief making by asking exactly when the decision to scrap the scheme was made.

Gosh, that's hard to work out!

By what must seem to the Conservatives to be nothing more than a coincidence, it was in 2007 that Plaid Cymru came into government and, specifically, that Ieuan Wyn Jones became minister in charge of transport policy.

It seems obvious to me that this money was spent going back over the presumptions and assumptions made about the new motorway in previous years to see whether they were robust or not. The answer that came back was very clearly that the scheme was not viable, and that there were better alternatives to solve the problem.

Only a "particular sort" of politician would blindly press ahead with the original scheme in such circumstances. Thankfully, Ieuan Wyn Jones is not one of them.

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Hillary Clinton changes her mind

It wasn't so very long ago that Sara Medi asked Hillary Clinton, as the American Secretary of State, for her views on increasing autonomy and eventual independence for countries like Wales, Scotland and Catalunya.


Clinton said she wasn't going to interfere in the internal affairs of any European country. However her attempts to influence the Scottish Government's decision to release Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds show that she was hardly being straightforward.

     Lockerbie bomber release 'absolutely wrong', says Hillary Clinton
     Hillary Clinton puts pressure on Scottish over Lockerbie bomber

Well, since when have the Americans ever restrained themselves from interfering in the internal affairs of other countries? And indeed we should expect governments to speak out about what happens elsewhere in the world and, if necessary, take steps to address issues of concern. The question is how to do it wisely, and what those steps should be.

Of course what she said in March was only an evasive answer to a question that she'd obviously never given any real thought to. But her recent efforts in "piling more pressure" on the Scottish Government must surely have meant that she has given the matter a good deal more thought in the last few weeks.

So it's high time to ask the question again.

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Rhif 6

Diolch yn fawr iawn am eich pleidleisiau ym mhôl Total Politics. Ond ...


... dw i ddim yn rhif. Dyn rhydd ydw i.

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Welsh Government at odds with Westminster over nuclear energy

There was a story in Golwg360 on Tuesday which was eventually picked up by the Western Mail today. The Western Mail's version focuses on Jane Davidson's call for a public inquiry into proposals for a new nuclear power station in Ynys Môn.


     Gwrthwynebwyr ail Wylfa'n hawlio buddugoliaeth
     Jane Davidson calls for public inquiry into nuclear power

However that is only one element in the story. The issue is about much more than whether there should be a public inquiry or not ... as if it were just a question of going through all the right procedures. The focus of Golwg's story was much more revealing. This part of what it said:

Mae gwrthwynebwyr ail atomfa yn yr Wylfa yn Ynys Môn yn hawlio buddugoliaeth ar ôl i Weinidog Amgylchedd Cymru ddweud nad oes angen pwerdai niwclear newydd yng Nghymru ...

Yn ôl Jane Davidson, roedd modd i Gymru gynhyrchu digon o drydan o ffynonellau eraill heb droi at niwclear.

Opponents of a second atomic power station at Yr Wylfa on Ynys Môn are claiming victory after the Welsh Environment Minister said there was no need for new nuclear power stations in Wales ...

According to Jane Davidson, Wales was able to produce enough electricity from other sources without turning to nuclear.

So far as I am aware, this is the first time the Welsh Government has made a definitive statement on the need for nuclear energy in Wales. So I fully agree with Dr Clowes that this development is particularly important.


For those of you who don't know my position on the issue, I am against nuclear power in Wales. However I have never based my argument on safety, because nuclear is relatively safe enough provided that large sums of money are spent on making and keeping it safe. But that does make cost an issue, not only for the expected life operating life of nuclear stations, but long into the future.

For me the argument is much simpler. The point I have always stressed is that Wales does not need nuclear power. But I accept that it might be different for other countries, not least England. I think that there might well be circumstances in which nuclear power is a lesser evil compared with doing nothing to slow the rate of climate change.

It is primarily a matter of population density. Countries like Wales, Scotland and Ireland have far greater renewable energy resources relative to the size of their population than England ... therefore it is possible for our three countries to meet CO2 emissions targets without resorting to nuclear. We in Wales can in fact do better, because we are blessed with a share of huge tidal energy resources.


So it is not a matter of ability to generate electricity, instead it simply boils down to politics. Both Ireland and Scotland have made the political decision to refuse any new nuclear development. In Wales the situation is different because any energy project over 50MW is not devolved. However there is a remarkable unanimity of agreement between three parties in Wales on the issue ... which was reflected in the All Wales Accord in 2007 (which would have formed the basis of the Rainbow coalition between Plaid, the Tories and LibDems) that contained the policy goal that all electricity in Wales would be produced from renewable sources.

Obviously that did not get reflected in the One Wales Agreement, because at the time Labour's policy was identical to that of Labour in London. That is why this statement from a Labour minister is so groundbreaking.


Of course the big question is whether it will make any difference. As things stand, the decision is not ours to make, it is Westminster's. The cynical part of me wondered if Jane Davidson was just saying she wants a public inquiry to look good, knowing that she will be over-ruled anyway. But if that were the case, why would she need to go further and say that Wales does not need nuclear?

So I'm inclined to think that this is not only a genuine statement on her part, but a courageous one too.

The worst thing we can do is simply ignore such boldness. Yes, we most certainly do need a public inquiry, but not for it to be, in the words of Lord Hunt, a "regulatory justification process" ... as if the whole thing were a foregone conclusion.

The bottom line is that at least 75% of the electricity the proposed new nuclear station at Yr Wylfa will produce will be for export to England. Wales is a net exporter of electricity, and is set to export even more when Severnpower and Pembroke come on line.

If England decides it needs nuclear power, that is of course England's decision to make ... but it should build those nuclear stations in England, not Wales. What happens in Wales should be for the Welsh Government to decide.

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Swansea to Llandudno ... by rail

One of the things I've been doing while I've had a break from blogging is to look in a little more detail at options for various North-South rail routes. I hope to publish an analysis in the next week or so.

But I got distracted and started to experiment with a video presentation. This is the result: a flythrough of a journey between Swansea and Llandudno.


The video is just under 20 minutes long. If you click the bottom right hand button you can see it in full screen, but I've had to downgrade the quality slightly so that it still streams. Use the time slider to focus on any part of the route:

     Carmarthen ... 3:40
     Llanbedr Pont Steffan ... 6:30
     Aberystwyth ... 9:40
     Harlech ... 14:20
     Blaenau Ffestiniog ... 16:00

The new sections are from Carmarthen to Aberystwyth, and from the Cambrian line near Llandecwyn to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The first is mainly along the line of the old railway, but with some improvements (the old route is shown paler) and the second was mentioned in more detail here.

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