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Parent power way to boost spoken Welsh

Language chair speaks out as her appointment is challenged. Karen Thornton reports

Parents are the key to ensuring the number of young Welsh speakers continues to rise, according to the new chair of the Welsh Language Board.

Meri Huws, currently head of lifelong learning at the University of Wales Bangor, also wants more bilingual provision in post-16 education.

But her appointment last week to the high-profile pound;31,000-a-year position was overshadowed by claims that a better candidate for the two-days-a-week job was rejected for party political reasons.

Owen John Thomas, Plaid Cymru's shadow culture minister and one of the four-strong interviewing panel, has made a formal complaint to the Commissioner for Public Appointments about how Ms Huws was selected.

Mr Thomas says culture minister Alan Pugh only wrote down marks for Ms Huws, a Labour party member, and failed to make any written observations on any of the other four candidates. When the panel's marks were added up, another candidate scored more than Ms Huws, but she was still appointed.

"It is important that appointments are made on merit and according to the other Nolan principles (on the integrity of public appointments) and not purely on the whim and favour of the minister," he said. "It seemed from the beginning that he was wanting to have a quick interview process and was extremely favourable of the one candidate."

But a Welsh Assembly spokesperson said an independent assessor had confirmed the appointment was made fairly. Discussing the merits of individual candidates in public was unfair and would discourage others from applying for similar posts, he added.

A spokesperson for the Commissioner's office said it could not comment on specific cases. Meanwhile Ms Huws, who declined to discuss the controversy, is due to take up her appointment on September 1.

The 2001 census showed the first increase in the number and percentage of Welsh speakers in decades, and the highest percentage of Welsh speakers (40.8 per cent) is among three to 15-year-olds. Ms Huws is keen to see Twf, an existing project which promotes the benefits of bilingualism to parents of very young children, extended to parents of primary and secondary pupils.

She agreed with headteacher Ion Thomas, head of Ysgol Gyfun Gwynllyw in Torfaen, who said in a debate at last week's National Eisteddfod that schools have become "islands of Welshness", with pupils unwilling to use the language outside school (TES Cymru, August 6).

"Welsh-medium provision in all our schools is crucial. The challenge is to keep parents in that loop. If we can get parents to 'own' experiences of the Welsh language, it is easier for a child to go home and share their experiences," she said.

"I'm also interested in vocational education and how we maintain language skills there. These are young people who are going to remain in their local communities, and where day-to-day use of the language in formal and informal ways is going to be important.

"We need schemes that allow new and established lecturers and trainers to develop the confidence to work through the medium of Welsh. Many use it in the home setting quite happily. It's often not an issue of capacity, but of confidence."

The Welsh Language Board's job is to help the Assembly government to deliver its plans for a bilingual Wales and increase the number of Welsh speakers. This year it will receive pound;12.3 million.

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