The hard lessons to be learned from the first five years of Cymraeg 2050
The moment you decide, you divide, is my favourite Tony Blair quote. Parents make decisions for their children, big and small, that are often far-reaching. 60 years ago, September 1962, my life educationally took a massive fork in the road. The day after I entered my Cardiff grammar school, council estate kid with 10 siblings, I was given a set of subject options by my class teacher. Each Year 7 boy had to choose an option subject between Art, Music, Welsh or Spanish.
So important was this to my parents that my father actually got involved for once. He ruled: Art, I couldn’t ‘draw the dole’; Music, our family could not afford expensive instruments; Welsh, my father, from Port Glasgow, said it was not going to offer me any career opportunities; so by default I must choose Spanish. I did and I loved it; I excelled and later became a teacher of Spanish and French.
Looking back now, my parents gave rational guidance that steered my career and much personal satisfaction. However, I have always had a nagging feeling of a missed opportunity to learn Welsh, the language of my heritage. My father was understandably wrong about the possibilities for Welsh (it has had a marvellous renaissance). I could’ve ended up a teacher of Welsh! I say this now without much regret; I have been given many other great opportunities for my fortunate life.
Missing opportunities for individuals is really not that life-defining in the long haul; other chances come up. It is not the same at all with public policy. Grave sins of commission and omission can cost massively for whole nations.
This is the concerning case with the Cymraeg 2050 vision for a million speakers. It was ‘ambitious’ and not fleshed out from the start; it had a significant imbalance towards Welsh-medium expansionism and seemed to lack much direction and chalkface detail. But that did not seem to matter all that much in a rolling 30-year vision. Now after its first 5 years we are in a new 5-year work programme, announced by The Minister for Education and The Welsh Language, Jeremy Miles. This plan is now updated by a consultation on Welsh in English-medium (EM) schooling. The pity is that the proposed new framework has not absorbed the hard lessons to be learned from the last 5 years in the majority of our schools.
Allow me to explain the gaping holes in both the current curriculum and teaching in the delivery of Welsh in (mostly primary and Key Stage 3, up to 14 years) English-medium schools. They remain unaddressed:
- Too many EM pupils are taught by teachers not trained in language teaching
- Too many teachers have underconfident and inadequate Welsh language acquisition
- Especially in some primary schools, the curriculum diet is starvation rations; often one short lesson a week -and sometimes this is missed out altogether. You can’t learn languages like that.
- There has been a paucity of up-to-date teaching materials and technologies.
Any wonder that progress is not being made across the nation and that Welsh in those environments comes out in surveys as an unpopular subject? The majority of students are being failed by this half-baked system. At Key Stage 4 and in post 16 EM Welsh is not thriving as it should be. There is also evidence of casual leadership in the worst performing EM schools.
That essentially unhealthy picture on the ground is the yield of a history of bad policy planning and thoughtless resourcing for English-medium schooling. Now we have another chance to right the wrongs as the Curriculum for Wales is introduced in September this year. What are the prospects for reconstruction? Not promising without big change. Good work is being done in pockets of excellence. A small group of South-east Wales expert teachers has produced further classroom materials and teaching guidance but we need much more; they have started to energise groups of frustrated and untrained teachers with support and contagious encouragement. However, the consultation draft on improving EM Welsh has been picked apart as unfit and status quo by leading EM practitioners. One of whom has warned that “the approach in the EM sector needs to be distinctly different from the approach in the WM sector.”
There is no sense of this distinctiveness in the main policy statements coming out from Cardiff Bay. We remain on the same track as 2017. The Government seems to have bet the farm that the September 2022 introduction of The Curriculum for Wales (CfW) will magically improve the unacceptable state of learning Welsh in the majority of our nation’s schools. It will not; CfW proposes nothing much for Welsh. It majors on tick boxes. No more time or resources. The new 2021-26 work programme makes 36 mentions of Welsh-medium (WM) and two mentions of EM. Imbalance and blind faith in WM expansion beset the 2050 thinking once again.
Current professional, classroom-based thinking (including FE) pulls no punches in a growing group consultation response by teachers:
- the framework proposed is “not suitable as a working document”
- it is not specific enough, it lacks coherence and practical sequencing
- it is too broad and long with 107 curriculum key statements for just one progression stage (these replace the old Key Stages).
What changes must be brought in to save Cymraeg 2050? The teachers are clear in their solutions:
- There must be a common core of curriculum across all EM schools. The Curriculum for Wales is plain wrong treating Welsh like other subjects and giving excessive local discretion
- We need to train far more specialists for EM classes. Primary schools must be teaching Welsh for much more time.
- We need a major investment in curriculum materials, for EM Welsh; they have to be up-to-date, based on the science of languages teaching and readily available for all schools in Wales.
For me, 60 years on from my own missing out on Welsh, my country needs to be doing better and smarter, urgently. I believe that the learning of Welsh carries so much ‘cultural capital’ that its curriculum development and support should be considered unique. This will necessitate a last-minute change by the minister to the Curriculum for Wales. A million speakers by 2050 is only viable as an ambition if we fix these EM schools issues.
It’s still just about not too late, thankfully, but, Jeremy Miles, do listen to your teaching experts. We have to confront the mistakes of the past and the present to get the future of Cymraeg right, in every school in Wales. The last thing we want is to divide our country by perpetuating schools which teach great Welsh (WM) and those which are condemned to inadequate Welsh (EM). Decisions from the consultation feedback must be made to bring closer both sectors together.
Terry Mackie is the author of The Slow Learning Country: Out of the dim into the light. Copies are only available by contacting him at email@example.com.
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