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Champion of the language

The new chief for Welsh teachers is determined to keep the native tongue, reports Adi Bloom.

Moelwen Gwyndaf's life reads like a textbook case study in Welsh nationalism.

The newly-elected general secretary of UCAC, the Welsh teachers' union, was born in a tiny village in rural Carmarthenshire. When she was eight, her parents moved to Oxfordshire. Armed with only three words of English (yes, no and what), the young Moelwen would slip into Welsh whenever she was speaking to her parents or siblings.

"Our headmistress called my mother in and said we shouldn't be speaking Welsh at home because we were living in England," said Ms Gwyndaf. "And the teacher used to punch me in the arm, because I didn't know what she meant."

Her belief in the importance of Welsh has remained with her to this day. She believes her role as head of the 4,700-member union is to champion Welsh culture.

When teaching unions were invited last year to sign the Government's national workload agreement, the National Union of Teachers publicly and vocally declined. But UCAC, too, quietly refused to accept the terms .

"We liked what it was offering but we weren't given assurances that it would be fully financed in Wales. The figures were only there for England.

"When we go to Westminster our national officers come from Wales. Other unions' officers come from England. They are not putting Welsh interests first."

Putting Welsh interests first is integral to the 52-year-old grandmother's plans for the union. For too long, she believes, Wales has been seen as the poor relation to England.

But since devolution the principality has been developing its own, increasingly distinct education system. And Ms Gwyndaf hopes to see this pursued to its natural conclusion.

"We're campaigning for an independent education system in Wales with separate pay and conditions. We have our own traditions and we are going down a different route from England. We mustn't always presume that just because Wales is in charge of something, we'll be worse off."

In particular, such local autonomy will enable Welsh educationists to focus on their own shortage areas.

Since devolution in 1999, a rise in the number of local jobs has led to increased competition for Welsh-speaking graduates. As a result, there is a significant lack of Welsh-language teachers.

But Ms Gwyndaf refuses to concede to the advice of her childhood teachers.

Her native language must, she believes, be preserved through deliberate, cross-curricular immersion in English-medium schools.

"You could teach everyday maths, such as telling the time or using the date, in Welsh. It is a highly-developed language. It is not just another subject - it's a useful medium."

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