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Don't let language be a barrier

Almost all local authorities in the UK face the headache of falling school rolls due to a decreasing birth rate. In Wales, the challenge is compounded by an educational and cultural success story the ever-increasing demand for Welsh-medium education.

In the valley communities and the south coast, for example, the demand for Welsh-medium education continually outstrips supply, which is very encouraging for a language that has been fighting for its existence. Yet the demand, along with falling birth rates, is accelerating the question of viability for many English-medium primary and comprehensive schools.

Sadly, this language factor has led to bitterness towards parents wanting Welsh-medium education for their children, when others in the same communities are fighting to keep open English-language schools.

As all local authorities are being forced to save money, these frictions are likely to appear across the whole region in the next few years. Yet there is also anger among Welsh-medium campaigners whose children are often taught in cramped, overcrowded facilities that lack basic services.

Councils may also face the high courts for not meeting the demands of Welsh medium education, as is required by law. In the middle are to be found councillors and council officers, being pulled in all directions by various factions fighting their corner.

Much anger could be avoided if parents on both sides were given the facts about falling rolls and where demand for Welsh is coming from. Many parents falsely believe that it is a result of migration from Welsh-speaking areas of the North and West. In truth, between 80 to 95 per cent of the parents are non-Welsh speaking and local.

There have been accusations of new-building bias towards Welsh schools, yet in places like Swansea there have been more English-medium new-builds. These projects escape criticism from the same councillors who are so vocal about the "extravagant" spending on a new Welsh-medium school in the city.

Part of the problem also lies in the inability of councils to predict future demand for Welsh-medium education. This has led to short-term measures turning into long-term problems, with Welsh-medium schools tagged on to existing English facilities for many years longer than planned.

What is certain is that councils can no longer duck this issue and must meet the Welsh-medium demand, and in a manner that is seen to be impartial to both sectors.

This difficult balancing act would be a lot easier if politicians chose not to take sides and recognised that both sets of parents are actually friends and neighbours from the same communities.

Working to create a truly bilingual Wales is a noble cause. But the gradual transition from English to Welsh-medium education must be driven by parental choice and not held up by political expedience or prejudice. We must also ensure that both educational mediums are not only treated equally but are seen to be treated equally. Any future school restructuring will depend on it.

Ian Titherington is Unison branch officer at Cardiff county council

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