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Wasted youth: Our children are paying the price for absent Welsh medium higher education

21 Apr 2024 9 minute read
Gruffydd playing in the bluebells

Stephen Price

My sister received the joyous news that her son has been accepted at a Welsh language primary school in Monmouthshire this week.

Since April of last year, he’s attended the nursery there and his progression in English and Welsh, not to mention his social skills and social life, has come on leaps and bounds in a way that simply wouldn’t have been the case had he waited until past his fourth birthday.

The deep joy in hearing him trot out “amser snack” or “pencampwriaeth” and “bore da” is immeasurable.

Tiny seeds taking root. A broken inheritance mended. Atonement.

Or so it should be.

Ein hanes / our history

My sister and I attended an English medium primary school that has sadly closed down now (soon to launch as holiday lets, would you believe), and the likelihood would have been that he would have gone there had history played out differently.

But for any children in our community today – of which there are fewer and fewer – a commute to school is a necessity, whether that is for an English medium school or Welsh.

For my nephew, it will mean a 15 minute one, but thankfully, or should that be essentially, a school bus will be provided when the time is right.

A worry in the back of both of our minds, however, is what will happen in seven or so years when it’s time for him to attend a secondary school.

As it stands, Monmouthshire currently has no Welsh medium secondary school.

Neither does the smaller county next door, Blaenau Gwent.

Neither, perhaps more shockingly to me, does Merthyr Tydfil.

And neither does southern Powys.

Ysgol Gyfun Gwynllyw. Google Street View

Currently, children who attend Welsh medium primary schools in Monmouthshire and Blaenau Gwent are forced to commute to Torfaen to continue their education in Welsh at Ysgol Gymraeg Gwynllyw in Pontypool.

The 400 or so children from Merthyr travel to Ysgol Rhydywaun in Hirwaun in Rhondda Cynon Taf or Ysgol Cwm Rhymni in Caerphilly.

The situation in Powys is no less damning. For those in the south of the county, it’s a case of attending the dual stream Brecon High or heading as far north as Builth Wells, or hopping a county or two to head to one of the aforementioned schools or Ysgol Gymraeg Ystalyfera in Neath Port Talbot.

Only, as many families in each of those counties will attest, many parents make the difficult decision to switch to a nearby English medium high school – for reasons ranging from unfamiliarity, too long a commute or tagging along with close friends.

Parents console themselves that their children’s Welsh skills are in the bag, but any Welsh learner would agree – it really is a case of use it or lose it.

What a complete waste.

What is overlooked with this educational switch, too, is the loss of community, and the loss of culture – often intangible or abstract, but as potent and important as any other detail of our identities and experiences – and indeed the loss of future prospects.

The goal of a million Welsh speakers by 2050 holds no one accountable, so it’s a simple case of the Welsh Labour Government at the time (you keep voting them in, not me!) churning out a generic apology and perhaps a new goal with just as much accountability and tangibility.

Arglwydd gwan, gwae ei was
Woe to the servant of a feeble lord

We can move the hands of the clock all we like, but no one is buying it.

Y dyfodol / The future

As Nation.Cymru reported back in January, discussions are underway between councils in south east and mid Wales to find a suitable site to build a joint Welsh-medium secondary school.

At a meeting of Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council’s Place scrutiny committee on Tuesday, January 30, councillors were given an update on long-term school building proposals.

In January 2022, the Welsh Government renamed the ’21st Century Schools Programme’ the ‘Sustainable Communities for Learning Programme’.

This new scheme aims to allow councils more flexibility, with the expectation that they produce a rolling programme of projects to work on for the next decade.

The report explains that projects submitted in years one to three are expected to reach full business case in that time scale.

Years four to six would see projects come forward that can be developed and need to go through a consultation process.

Projects in years seven to nine are pipeline projects.

The Welsh Government expects local authorities to review their rolling programme at least every three years.

A possible development for Blaenau Gwent from years four to six, from 2027 onwards, is a Welsh-medium secondary school.

End of the road

Worryingly, the report suggests that youngsters from Blaenau Gwent, and with them those from Monmouthshire and Powys, won’t be able to attend Gwynllyw from September 2028.

This is because Torfaen is seeking to develop more Welsh medium primary schools and would need the space for their own pupils.

Cllr David Wilkshire said: “The solution is to have our own (secondary) school.”

He asked if any discussions had already started with Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council, Monmouthshire, and Powys County Council’s to work together on the project.

Education transformation manager, Joanne Mackay said: “We meet every half term at the moment.

“Merthyr, Powys and Monmouthshire are growing their (Welsh medium) primary provision as well.”

“It’s perhaps a bit of a national issue as we’re all doing the same thing.”

She explained that local authorities are all working to set up Welsh medium primary schools.

But the lack of Welsh medium secondary schools is creating a “bottleneck” with children leaving Welsh medium primary schools with nowhere to go to continue their education in Welsh.

Ms Mackay said: “We are looking at identifying a piece of land where we could develop provision that could serve all of us.”

Once a patch of land – convenient to all four councils – is found they would then “make representations” to the Welsh Government for funding to build the school.

Cllr Wilkshire said: “It’s wonderful to have a Welsh school but if we don’t have the teachers, we’re back to square one so we need to be mindful of that – it’s not as simple as it seems.”

Ms Mackay added that the Welsh Government was aware of this problem and were looking to develop more teachers that can work in Welsh.

Picture by the Welsh Government

Another long term project could be a new build secondary school in Brynmawr which is listed for 2027 onwards.

Cllr Jules Gardner who represents Brynmawr asked for some clarity on this proposal.

Ms Mackay said: “We’re looking at the best options, be it part or full replacement there’s a lot of things to consider.”

Y presenol / The present

I bumped into an old classmate a few months back and happened on the subject of my nephew’s schooling, eager to find out about her children’s experience in the same school.

Her teenage children are both thriving, but I was saddened to hear that she’d made the difficult decision to send her youngest to a local English medium comprehensive after the experience of her first born.

Ahead of starting this piece, she agreed to share some thoughts in confidence, writing: “After having two children go through Ysgol Gymraeg Y Fenni, I am extremely disappointed and frustrated that there is no Welsh medium secondary provision in Monmouthshire.

“My eldest child had to spend an hour on the bus each morning, leaving at 7.15am to attend the Welsh Medium in Torfaen and then struggled with her social development as most of her friends she’d made from the same school lived in Caerleon and Caerwent.

“It seriously impacted upon her wellbeing as she did not have the freedom to go out with friends after school due mostly to the distance between her and her peers.

“Because of this, the decision was made for my younger son to attend a local secondary in Abergavenny.

“Even though the Welsh language is extremely important to us as a family, we felt we had to sacrifice this for him as we did not want a repeat of him feeling isolated socially.

“Now, my son is in a nearby English medium high school and although we’re very happy with the level of education there, we are very sad that my son has since mostly forgotten a lot of the Welsh language and finds it difficult to converse now compared to his fluency at Primary.

“As non-Welsh speaking parents, he has sadly struggled to maintain the absolute need to speak our national language regularly enough to hold on to it.

“As a family, we feel that we have been denied the opportunity for our son to be offered his right to a local Welsh secondary education in his treasured national language.”

Enough is enough

I read my friend’s words with tears in my eyes, and I don’t want this sad, sorry situation for my nephew, or any other child in Wales ever again.

That it has been repeated for decades, for hundreds if not thousands of our precious children and young adults across Monmouthshire, Blaenau Gwent, Merthyr and southern Powys is of national importance, and a national disgrace.

And, as ever, no one will be held accountable.

How utterly, heartbreakingly sad for them, for us, and for Wales.

Enough is enough.

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1 month ago

There needs to be more.
There’s also one in Aberdare, Ysgol Gyfun Rhydywaun

1 month ago

Clyw, clyw.

29 days ago

On so many fronts in different subjects, from education through to health care, there’s on joined up thinking. Retention of talent doesn’t figure in WG’s plans for the future.

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