Teaching Our Teachers

I've just been reading a report—which I came across more by accident than design—prepared for the Office of the Languages Commissioner of Nunavit in Canada, that gives what I found to be a rather helpful overview of the linguistic situation in a number of countries, including Euskadi, Catalunya, Finland, Estonia and New Zealand.


It was prepared in 2002, and although that makes it a little dated it is interesting to see the how things were viewed at that time, not least because when you are trying to keep pace with events as they happen it's easy to lose the perspective of recent history.


I would like to pick out one thing which particularly struck me concerning education in Euskadi, the Basque Country. As I've said before, I think the situation there is perhaps of most relevance to us in Wales, because the size of our two countries and the proportion who speak our respective languages is very similar.

The proportion of teaching staff with an appropriate command of Basque has risen markedly. In 1996-97, almost 65 percent of the teaching staff had a command of Basque, up from 5 percent in 1976-77.

The biggest hindrance to our goal of creating a bilingual Wales is the availability of teachers who can teach Welsh and in Welsh. What this shows is that the percentage can be dramatically increased in a relatively short period of time. The Basques achieved a huge increase from a very low percentage base in twenty years. We also have records for the last twenty years (though not the same twenty years) which are here:

     Welsh Teaching in Primary Schools
     Welsh Teaching in Secondary Schools
     Total Number of Teachers

There's a wealth of detail which we can pore over at leisure, but the information is difficult to interpret. For example, in primary schools the figures show that out of 13,582 teachers, 2,799 (20.6%) teach Welsh as a first language, 9,148 (67.4%) teach it as a second language, and 478 (3.5%) are considered able to teach Welsh, but don't. I can't see that more than a handful of teachers at primary level would teach Welsh both as a first and a second language, because primary school teachers tend to have care of only one class all the time and the 20.6% roughly equates with the numbers of children in WM education. So the picture is that the vast majority of primary school teachers in EM settings are teaching Welsh, irrespective of whether they are competent Welsh speakers or not. They are merely passing on what little they know because there is no one else to do it. Although this is only an example, one headteacher of a primary school in Llanelli recently said that all twelve of her teachers were capable of teaching Welsh as a second language, but that none of them were currently proficient to teach through the medium of Welsh. I imagine this is repeated in many other EM schools.

The secondary school information is a little clearer, showing that out of 13,102 teachers, 398 teach it as a first language, 648 as a second language, 1,835 teach other subjects in Welsh and 501 don't teach in Welsh but could. At best this would mean that 3,382 or 25.8% of secondary school teachers can teach Welsh or in Welsh, but in reality there will be a lot of overlap in these figures as some will teach Welsh as both a first and second language, and some will teach Welsh and other subjects in Welsh. At a guess, I'd say the figure is very unlikely to be above 20%.

But, as always, the key in looking at any statistics is to compare like with like. On whatever basis it was measured, the number of teachers competent in Euskara increased thirteen-fold in twenty years; yet the number of teachers competent in Welsh has hardly changed over a similar period. This is a remarkable, and painful, contrast.


For what it's worth, we do realize the situation in Wales is bad. According to Estyn, although we teach Welsh as a first language well, we teach Welsh as a second language worse than any other subject.

[54] In secondary schools, the weak performance of Welsh second language continues from previous years, and it is worse now than it was in the past. We reported last year that almost half the work had some important shortcomings. This year, two-thirds of pupils’ work in Welsh second language has important shortcomings. Teaching in Welsh second language is much worse than in other subjects.

[110-111] In schools where Welsh second language is taught, pupils continue to achieve lower standards in bilingualism than in other key skills. Standards in bilingualism are good in just over half of the schools we inspected this year. Standards in bilingualism are lower than standards of Welsh as a second language. Around half of pupils make very limited progress in developing bilingual skills, especially speaking.

[148] The weak performance of Welsh second language continues from previous years and has deteriorated this year. Two-thirds of the work in Welsh second language has important shortcomings.

Estyn Annual Report, 2007-2008

Estyn's last report was presented in a different and rather less detailed format which makes comparison difficult. It suggests things have improved a little, but that things are still bad.

But even the recently published Welsh-medium Education Strategy does not set any objective targets for increasing the number of teachers who can competently teach Welsh or in Welsh. I think this is one of its major shortcomings because, as we can see from the next table, the number of students completing Initial Teacher Training that includes bilingual teaching or leads to a formal certificate of bilingual education is only a small percentage of the total number of teachers we train in Wales:

Table 7 - Students completing ITT courses in Wales

2003/04 ... Non-bilingual 1,820 - Bilingual 290 (13.7% of total)
2004/05 ... Non-bilingual 1,625 - Bilingual 480 (22.8% of total)
2005/06 ... Non-bilingual 1,810 - Bilingual 255 (12.4% of total)
2006/07 ... Non-bilingual 1,450 - Bilingual 460 (24.1% of total)
2007/08 ... Non-bilingual 1,630 - Bilingual 190 (10.4% of total)
2008/09 ... Non-bilingual 1,645 - Bilingual 220 (11.8% of total)

Initial Teacher Training in Wales, 2008/09

To me, it is nothing short of scandalous that the trend is downwards rather than upwards. It shows that the problem is not being properly addressed at a political level.

The point isn't that these teaching graduates are unable to speak Welsh. We know that about 50% of children in secondary schools can speak Welsh. The point is that, except for a few, their ability is not being treated as an integral part of their teaching qualification. It is still being treated as an optional "bolt-on" even though it is an essential part of the set of skills that a teacher needs, particularly at primary level where the same teacher teaches all subjects to their class.


I think that the lack of progress has now become so serious that we should make it a requirement for all teachers trained in Wales to be certified as being able to teach in Welsh. Obviously we need to phase this in, so I'd say we should set a target that 50% of teachers trained in Wales should be certified as able to teach in Welsh from now on, and increase that by another 5% each year. Bearing in mind that a recently trained teacher might well have a career of forty years, even this step will take a few decades to translate into a situation in which every teacher can teach in both English and Welsh.

This might seem radical, but is it? Look back at the statistics for primary schools: they say that 11,948 out of 13,582 teachers, or 88.0%, teach Welsh as a first or second language ... yet I would be surprised if even a third of them were up to that part of their job. We would simply be replacing what the statistics say is true with something that is actually true. If Euskadi can increase their proportion of bilingual teachers from 5% to 65% in twenty years, we can surely do something similar ... but it takes political will to do it.

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