Skip to main content

Cultural revolution set to sweep the valleys

By 2002, almost all school-leavers should be able to speak Welsh. But the task of restoring the language to areas where it has died out is huge. Diane Hofkins reports. The national curriculum has revived the possibility once again of a nation of Welsh speakers.

Under the law, all children in the Principality must now study Welsh, either as a first or second language, from age five - although some border schools have been granted exemptions - and 2002 will be the first year in which virtually all 16-year-old school-leavers should be able to speak Welsh.

The task of returning Welsh to areas where it has died out is a huge one, and it is opposed by some with as much passion as it is supported by others.

The biggest problem is the supply of teachers for Welsh as a Second Language (WSL). The requirement to teach it at key stage 4 has been suspended until 1999, when the first cohort of pupils who studied the language since reception reaches Year 10. By then, Awdurdod Cwricwlwm ac Asesu Cymru (the Curriculum and Assessment Authority for Wales) hopes that enough teachers will have been trained through programmes run by the Welsh Joint Education Council, the colleges and the counties.

The Orders for Welsh have not been altered dramatically, and schools with well-developed schemes of work will be making few changes. Much of the detail has been deleted from the Welsh as a first language Order, which until now has provided a virtual syllabus for teaching the language. "It did give them a path," says Helen Adler, professional officer for Welsh at ACAC. Now, she says, schools will have to work from the programme of study, rather than the level descriptions or old statements of attainment.

The main change to WSL is in the assessment. The old Order has a complicated system of statements of attainment linked to the first language Order. This has been replaced by 10 simple level descriptions. While many teachers feel it is still too difficult, ACAC is keen to preserve high expectations. The long-term aim is to bring the two Welsh Orders closer together, so that, early in the next century, everyone in Wales will be truly bilingual. By then, it is hoped, both children and teachers will be working to a higher standard, and all pupils will be learning Welsh from the age of five.

Revisions to the English Order, bringing it more in line with the Welsh Order, have implications for co-ordinating the teaching of the two languages. This will boost the role of language co-ordinators, particularly in primaries. "The language co-ordinator has to be the linchpin," says Gareth Evans, head of Ysgol Melin Gruffydd, a Welsh-medium primary in Whitchurch, a village on the edge of Cardiff, where 70 per cent of the pupils come from homes speaking only English.

There, the English and Welsh co-ordinators work together closely, since many of the language skills, such as letter-writing, apply equally to both languages.

Opened 16 years ago, Melin Gruffydd is now one of 11 Welsh-medium primaries in south Glamorgan which serve a predominantly English-speaking community. Teachers there are proud that in 14 years, all save one of its pupils have gone on to Cardiff's Welsh-medium comprehensive. "When children leave this school they are completely bilingual," says Rhian Lloyd, the Year 6 teacher and curriculum leader for English. Unusually, 280-pupil Melin Gruffydd shares not just a campus, but a building with an English-medium school, 300-pupil Eglwys Wen: a true case of parental choice on offer.

The revised Welsh curriculum, which comes into effect in August at key stages 1-3 and a year later for key stage 4, "seems far more vague" than the original version, says Gwenda Francis, curriculum leader for Welsh at Melin Gruffydd. "I wondered if there was enough detail about grammar." She said the revision would increase flexibility for an experienced Welsh teacher, but anyone coming for the first time to Welsh-medium teaching might need to refer to the old Order. "Having studied the original, we have got the knowledge. We know what children can do and what to try to aim for with the most able pupils," she said. Someone creating a scheme of work from scratch based on the new Order would "need a lot of help". County primary teacher-adviser Liz Morgan-Jones said she was advising schools to hang on to the old version for the time being.

Assessment of Welsh has withstood the winds of change which swept across all the other core subjects, and six-week activity-based "tasks" for judging children's attainments are still in place at key stages 1-3, in addition to written tests (which are optional at key stage 1). These have been welcomed in Wales because they have helped with curriculum development and provided much-needed materials. However, Mr Evans regrets that they have not yet been able to try the KS2 assessments because of a continuing boycott by UCAC, the Welsh teachers' union. In all, there are 457 Welsh-medium primary schools and 45 secondaries, out of a total of 1,697 primaries and 225 secondaries in the Principality. So most pupils are still studying Welsh as a second language. This has, by and large, proved to be enjoyable for teachers in infant classes, who are able to keep at least one step ahead of the little ones. But junior teachers are finding it difficult. Training courses have helped, but key stage 2 teachers have not had the opportunities for in-service training which were offered to infant and lower secondary teachers at the time of the national curriculum's introduction.

In most primaries, the class teachers cover WSL, so that, depending upon their knowledge and enthusiasm, the standard of pupils entering secondary schools is highly variable. Some see team teaching as a way forward, so that one teacher teaches Welsh to several classes. Also, the situation is easier in the more "Welsh" areas such as Gwynedd. It is still not clear how the problem will be solved, but Pounds 5 million is spent annually on INSET grants by the Welsh Office.

Yglwys Wen takes a different approach, with a half-time Welsh teacher, Lynda Lewis, teaching the language from about half-an-hour a week to reception children to about two hours a week to Years 5 and 6. Class teachers have also gone on LEA courses so they can integrate some Welsh into their lessons. "They have gained in confidence," says Mrs Lewis. "I can imagine it must be very hard to get a smattering of the language and then be told you have to teach it. It would be like for me to teach Japanese."

Yglwys Wen's other advantage, particularly important for a school in a non-Welsh-speaking area, is that it is next door to a Welsh-medium school, so the children hear the language around them, said Peter Morgan, the head.

Mrs Lewis still thinks the expectations are very high in the new Order, particularly in its demands for reading and writing. "Key stage 1 in particular should be aiming for a good oral proficiency," says Mr Morgan.

But Helen Adler, professional officer for Welsh at ACAC, argues that reading, writing and speaking should be integrated. HM Inspectors had said oral skills were getting better. "Reading and writing can help consolidate pupils' skills and bring variety", she says.

Level 2 Writing says: "Pupils write appropriate phrases to convey simple factual and personal information which lies within their experience. They show an awareness of the form of familiar words, phrases and basic sentences. "

Mrs Lewis says that she expects Year 2 pupils to reach level 2 and Year 6 pupils (who have not had the full seven years' study) to attain level 3.

The unevenness of WSL teaching in primary schools has a knock-on effect for secondaries, says Gareth Davies, head of Welsh at Bishop of Llandaff High School in Cardiff. South Glamorgan is working on a bridging course for those coming in with less Welsh. Meanwhile, the demands for WSL learners at secondary schools are tougher than the equivalent requirements for modern foreign languages. Nevertheless, Mr Davies is not convinced that Welsh as a first and second language can ever really be brought together. He regrets the decision to suspend the requirement for WSL at key stage 4, but it is still a popular option at Bishop of Llandaff. More than half the students plan to continue.

For Welsh-medium primary schools the slimming down exercise will still not leave much free time - only 5 to 10 per cent at key stage 2. Meanwhile, at key stage 4, half the time will be freed, more than in England.

Modern foreign language, technology and IT are not required in Wales, in addition to history, geography, art and music. It increases the pressure in key stage 3 on modern languages, because more is demanded at that stage. Nevertheless, schools like Ysgol y Cymer in the Rhondda valley want to offer a broad curriculum at key stage 4, against a background where pupils study two languages as core subjects, and can also do both Welsh and English literature as GCSE options. "What we are doing is actively encouraging as many as possible in the year group to follow courses in modern foreign languages and technology," said headteacher Eirlys Jones.

The school is looking at the role of single science for those not planning to specialise in the subject, and at short modern languages and technology courses. "We find that our pupils carry a heavy burden of subjects," said Mrs Jones.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you