Editorial - Dynamite idea that could blow our budgets

15th May 2009 at 01:00
Bilingualism is likely to raise achievement, but can we afford to make it a priority?

The Assembly government's draft Welsh-medium strategy is dynamite (page 1). This radical plan has the potential to be more controversial than MPs' expenses.

The language issue has historically provided fierce debate in Wales.

A bilingual education has been proven to improve a child's cognitive development and mental agility, so a commitment to the Welsh-language cause now could help raise academic and vocational achievement in the future.

There is also increasing demand for Welsh-medium education. It has become almost a fashion statement for the middle-classes to send their children to these schools, where results are generally better, even if they can only manage a bore da (good morning). The revival of the Welsh language is a remarkable thing.

That said, the hard facts behind this well-researched strategy do not bode well. Out of 38,879 registered teachers in Wales, only 10,092 are qualified to teach in Welsh. In the wider population, around four-fifths cannot speak the so-called language of heaven. So is a "truly bilingual Wales" an unobtainable goal?

The draft strategy raises many questions: could pressure to meet unrealistic language aspirations under tight budgets push schools over the edge? Is there a danger that training teachers in Welsh will make the nation more insular? Will English-medium schools lose out on funding? Could the plan prove divisive to communities? It is already proving so in Cardiff as English-medium schools close to make way for Welsh-medium counterparts. Above all, how much will it cost and should bilingualism be such a priority in cash-poor times?

Dissenters of this strategy will want to know if there is a get-out clause. The 1996 Education Act does place a statutory duty on local authorities to provide sufficient school places and education within the wishes of parents, but only "as far as is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure". So what will all this cost and is it reasonable?

Hopefully, this summer's consultation will answer these and the many other questions that are bound to be asked, not least whether a passion for the Welsh language in government circles defies all reason.

For many Welsh speakers, the enduring legacy of the Blue Books - an 1847 report by mostly English inspectors that remains infamous for its condemnation of the Welsh language - could cloud judgments. The injustice of the Welsh Not - a neck chain that 19th-century children were forced to wear if they spoke their first language in class - lives on in many Welsh-speaking souls.

Leaving aside these emotive issues, there is a powerful argument for bilingualism as an effective tool for raising achievement in the long term.

The impending consultation process will be all-important in determining the strength of the resulting strategy. Whatever the outcome, the final draft must strike a fair balance between the interests of Welsh and English-medium education or it will risk alienating the non-Welsh-speaking majority.

Nicola Porter, Editor, TES Cymru E: nicola.porter@tes.co.uk.

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