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Deluge christens Welsh bac bid

IF SOME people outside Wales - and even some in it - think of the Eisteddfod as a quaint throwback to more innocent times, the truth is it's the only place to be in August.

The sweet sound of song still drifts over the field (occasionally drowned by Welsh pop music from the radio stations' stages) but outside the main pavilion where the competitions and ceremonies take place, everyone is getting down to the real business: networking.

Almost every serious public body in Wales, from the teacher unions to (ahem) British Nuclear Fuels has a stand.

The druids are still there (though not every day of the week-long event) and the competitions preserve centuries-old traditions. But the Eisteddfod also looks to the future - and never more so, as Welsh culture experiences a renaissance.

There are more Welsh-medium schools today than ever; and after the apathetic turnout in 1997's referendum, the Welsh have surprised themselves with an unexpected excitement over the National Assembly which formally opened on July 1.

This week assembly members beat a path to Anglesey, site of the 1999 Eisteddfod, led by first minister Alun Michael and pursued by a host of lobbyists seeking to influence the direction the body takes - not least the education lobby.

Leading the charge was the reborn campaign for a Welsh baccalaureate, proposed by the Institute of Welsh Affairs which is seeking pound;1.1million to run a pilot in six schools.

The WelshBac would bring academic and vocational courses into an overarching qualification backed by core studies which would include key skills, theory of knowledge and citizenship. Students would study the arts, sciences and social sciences. It would also feature a strong but non-compulsory Welsh dimension.

"The assembly has sent shockwaves and excitement through a lot of fields," said Eirlys Pritchard Jones, WelshBac steering committee member. "We've got to get it right now, and the WelshBac could help. It would show vision."

Labour in Wales rejected the WelshBac last year after initial warmth. But a pilot has attracted other powerful backing from industry, offers from around 30 schools and colleges to take part, and the support of Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats.

With the assembly hung, that political support is significant. It also offers the teaching unions in Wales hope in their fight against "payment by results" - a rally was held at the Eisteddfod yesterday.

The NUT's newly-appointed political officer for Wales, Dyfan Jones, said: "An issue like this, where there's a broad consensus among teachers, parents and governors, gives the assembly a challenge to stand up and create something distinctive for Wales."

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