The recent speech given on the Welsh language by Phil Bale, the ex-leader of Cardiff Council, seems to have ruffled a few feathers, especially with his declaration that all new schools in Cardiff should be bilingual or Welsh medium.
In fact, his ideas succeeded in getting so much traction that other notable Labour figures in Cardiff decided to enter the fray, reminding the good citizens of Wales that we must not forget the importance of ‘parental choice’.
The uninitiated might suppose that this was in support of their colleague’s claims, hoping to secure a future for Cardiff where there was equal choice between English and Welsh medium.
For every council knows that what dictates parent choice over all other considerations is convenience, and by this measure it is a far from equal picture in our capital city.
With English medium primary schools outnumbering Welsh medium schools by nearly 4 to 1, the chances that most parents will find themselves in a position of equal convenience with respect to English and Welsh schools are not what they might be, shall we say.
The expansion of Welsh medium can only serve to increase the provision of genuine choice for parents (I disagree fundamentally with the idea that choice is somehow the overriding principle with regards the education system, by the way, but lets argue the case on the terms of the opposition).
Unfortunately, a concern for genuine choice between Welsh and English medium is far from the thoughts of a number of influential individuals.
Indeed, one can confidently surmise that those who chant ‘choice’ will be the not-so-silent minority of 14% who don’t think we should even take pride in Welsh.
They are the ones likely to tell you, if we allow the next 10 schools that are opened to be Welsh or bilingual, the delicate ecology of primary education in Cardiff shall be rent asunder, with a mere two and half English medium schools existing for every Welsh medium school. Such revolution!
How would the communities of Cardiff survive such an assault on the delicate fabric that has sustained them through its wonderful centuries of monoglot Anglophone bliss, one might ask?
The single most frustrating aspect around the talk of Welsh medium education, especially in Cardiff, is that the idea that a far greater percentage of children should be enrolled is somehow seen as radical, emotive and controversial – and that uproar is a legitimate response.
One has to have some sympathy for council leader Huw Thomas, a native Welsh-speaker from Aberystwyth, who is surrounded by non-Welsh speakers in the Cardiff Labour Party.
Many of them are very supportive, in my experience, but it is not unfair to question whether there exists a core group sufficiently motivated to ward off the less benign sentiments of others in the party.
Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that it’s the situation of Welsh language education in a microcosm – goodwill abounding, general agreement in principle, and then action and progress forestalled by inaction and fear of the belligerent few.
In addition, council officers must not be without their share of the blame. Congenitally cautious and conservative, the idea of changing their ways seems to be anathema to them.
I say all this, I should add, on the back of a very bitter experience, having been a member of the TAG Campaign for a Welsh-medium school for the communities of Grangetown and Butetown in Cardiff.
You can read some of the gory details elsewhere, but the reference point here relates to Phil Bale’s argument above: in our part of Cardiff we had two wards, with a combined population of about 30,000 people, with not one Welsh medium school.
In fact, most parents in Butetown who desired Welsh medium education had to make the choice of registering themselves at addresses in the Vale of Glamorgan to get their children into a Penarth school!
And was it a coincidence, one might ask, that these are the most multi-ethnic wards in the country with some of the highest scores on the Multiple Deprivation Index?
Genuine “choice” didn’t come into it for the majority of families.
The school was eventually established (but not before Phil Bale came to power and the previous cabinet had been ousted).
However, issues abound with its establishment, in a way that reflects many of the ongoing issues with Welsh medium education in Cardiff.
For one, the process of registering for the new school has been complicated due to the lack of a catchment area – a situation that will continue for at least another year, even though the council are well aware of the problems.
As a result, you only have one in four chance of coming across the school on the online system (trust me, I tried all the options).
Even worse, and something that you would scarcely believe – unless you’ve heard it with your own ears (again, I have) – is that the person answering the phone in the admissions office does not indicate that a Welsh-medium school is an option in your area, unless you ask specifically about that option.
To say that the day-to-day structures are weighted against Welsh Education would be an understatement.
A direct consequence, of course, is that many who have used that system would not have known about the school as an option – tucked away as it is at the far corner of Grangetown, on another school’s site.
A shortage of information means that only parents in the area who have contacts, or privileged information, will have been aware of the choice.
In an area such as Butetown, because of the low levels of awareness (despite being in the same ward as the Senedd!) you will meet people who think that Welsh-medium education constitutes some form of private education that requires fee-paying.
In such a situation it is clearly minority and less privileged communities that are the ones who are losing out.
The lack of affirmative action in such a case reflects problems with wider aspects of the Welsh education sector.
Many hoped that the declaration of a million speakers would stimulate councils to start working seriously towards expanding Welsh-medium education, but there seems to be little response or impetus.
Without forceful leadership from the Council’s cabinet, there is no likely change in the way that procedures are organized.
Moreover, without the Education Minister or Minister for the Welsh Language taking on a more interventionist role – as happens with councils sometimes going into special measures – there will not be the necessary compulsion from the Senedd either.
There are, nevertheless, opportunities for improvement in the future, as Phil Bale has identified. It is not only a question of recalibrating structures and practices.
With a number of housing developments around Cardiff, there is a golden opportunity for the Council to promote the Welsh language by ensuring that the new schools involved in these developments are Welsh medium.
At present, however, there is little evidence that the Council sees this as an opportunity, with some claiming that there is a need for a ‘test of demand’ before taking that decision – although there are no residents there to ask in the first place!
The consequence being, of course, that there is a presumption in favour of English that creates yet further imbalance in the provision.
If parents in the area want a Welsh medium community school when they move in, they can bloody well spend three years campaigning for it, seems to be the message.
There may, however, be some signs that change is afoot, and there are more expectations from the Government in terms of proactive implementation by the Councils.
In fairness, the Minister for Welsh, Eluned Morgan (who attended TAG’s first rally, and who’s already threatened budget cuts to councils that don’t shape up) recently announced that she intended to ‘create’ the demand, rather than ‘respond’ to it.
This is an opportunity for Cardiff, our capital city, to set an example to other councils.
And they can do so by reforming their parental choice structures, and ensuring that all new primary schools are Welsh medium, unless there is a particular reason not to do so.
And one final thought; if we can’t, as a capital city, or as a country, push through reforms with a high level of public support, and that have a track record of success (how many Welsh medium schools in South Wales have shut down due to a dearth of pupils?), one is left to wonder in what areas of public policy we have any hope of success.