Whatever one’s personal opinion about teaching Welsh as a second language to children, there’s no denying the status quo is ineffective and unacceptable. Not only because over 75 per cent are denied the ability to speak the language fluently, but also because the system tries to ensure all pupils are fluent, but completely fails to deliver. So, we have a system which has a very worthy aim, but does not work. That’s why there is a broad consensus amongst educationalists and across parties in favour of significant change.
No-one who has read Professor Sioned Davies’ report can come to a conclusion other than the system needs transforming, not retaining. The key problem with teaching Welsh as a second language, is that almost none of those leaving an English medium school can speak the language. In other words, the system is failing, despite the efforts of a number of talented teachers.
The benefits of bilingualism, or multilingualism, don’t need to be reiterated to the vast majority of the people of Wales. Cymdeithas’ view is clear: all children in Wales have the right to become bilingual because Welsh is a unique inheritance to everyone who choose to make Wales their home, not just a few of us. Welsh is an essential skill for all, because everyone should be able to contribute fully to our bilingual country, and thereby live in Welsh.
The Welsh language faces a crisis. The diagram above is a good illustration of this, 6,500 fluent speakers pass away annually, compared to the 5,100 children that acquire the language. Including the effect of migration patterns, there is an annual net loss of 3,000 speakers: there are not enough Welsh-speaking children coming out of the education system to offset the changing demographics. A fact that is even clearer looking in more detail at the census results: the young people who were able to speak Welsh in 2001 had fallen from around 85,000 to 37,500 ten years later.
Sioned Davies’ report is welcome because it makes serious recommendations, which need implementing immediately if we are to ensure growth in the language over the years to come. The report’s conclusions are striking, highlighting the serious problems which need solving urgently. Amongst those highlighted are: Welsh teachers not being able to speak Welsh; oral language assessment being memorised word for word; and the host of failing standards identified by Estyn.
The reports states in no uncertain terms: “It is undeniably the eleventh hour for Welsh second language. … Estyn reports show that the overall standard has fallen annually; in fact, pupil attainment levels are lower than in any other subject. Had this been said of Mathematics, or English, a revolution would undoubtedly have ensued. But low attainment in Welsh second language has been accepted as the norm. If we are serious about developing Welsh speakers, and about seeing the Welsh language thrive, a change of direction is urgently required before it is too late.”
The key shift the report recommends is starting to deliver at least some of the curriculum through the medium of Welsh in every school in Wales. That supports the main message from our presentation to the review, namely introducing Welsh-medium education for all as well as teaching it as a subject, rather than teaching it as a second language. Indeed, the entire ‘second language’ concept needs to be abolished.
This view is supported not only by academics, but also, crucially, by the Welsh Government’s own Welsh Language Education Strategy which states: “Welsh-medium education from the early years, with robust linguistic progression through every phase of education, offers the best conditions for developing future bilingual citizens.” Sioned Davies’s report therefore reflects the consensus in civic society about how to realise the aim of the present system – namely Welsh language fluency for all. For instance, a wide range of people, including Robin Mcbryde, Adam Price, Susan Elan Jones MP and Ann Jones AM, signed a recent letter supporting Cymdeithas’ campaign for Welsh medium education for all.
The findings of report are also recognise that children do not understand the significant context or the reason they were being taught the language. For example, “pupils … do not have an understanding of the wider context of the language, both historically, culturally and politically.” So we are in the remarkable position of denying the rights of under 18s to speak fluent Welsh but requiring them to learn about the Battle of Bosworth.
The results of the census in 2011 should have acted as a catalyst to enact social change at every level of society in Wales. Unfortunately, and, despite the crisis facing the language and the report’s recommendation to act urgently, the Government has already decided to delay. It is an inaction that has manifested itself in every policy area concerning the Welsh language.
That inaction is why Cymdeithas have given Carwyn Jones until 1st February to respond to proposals in six crucial policy areas. One of these is to get rid of the failing system that is second language teaching.
Cymdeithas will be holding a rally in Aberystwyth on December 14th calling on the First Minister to unlock the barriers preventing our people from living their lives in Welsh. If you agree the education system needs to be transformed so that every child gets to live their life in Welsh, join us at the rally.