How a nation retained its own identity

4th July 2003 at 01:00
Peter Gordon looks at the influences in the coming of age of Welsh education

A History of Education in Wales. By Gareth Elwyn Jones and Gordon Wynne Roderick. University of Wales Press pound;15.99 (pbk) pound;35 (hbk).

To many people living east of Offa's Dyke, the history of Welsh education is something of a closed book. The two authors are therefore to be congratulated on producing a work that clearly and interestingly sets out to tell the story of educational developments in the principality covering a span of some 1,500 years. In a work of slightly more than 200 pages, Jones and Roderick trace the evolution of educational provision in the context of the society and economy of Wales and in the light of relationships with the UK Government.

From the conquest of Wales by Edward I in 1282, the question of national identity was an important one. The uniting of England and Wales in the 16th century made it advantageous for Welsh gentry to learn English, while the majority of the population remained monoglot Welsh, which, the authors point out, affected the provision of formal education for centuries.

Of great interest is the section dealing with the circulating schools established by Griffith Jones in the early 18th century, described as one of the most important educational experiments anywhere in Europe. These schools, which were free, concentrated on the reading of the Bible in Welsh, with writing and arithmetic prohibited, and represented the beginning of mass education: more than a third of a million pupils between 1731 and 1761. The schools were responsible for making Wales a literate nation. Equally important was the Sunday School movement started by Thomas Charles: by 1847, 80 per cent of those who attended these schools went to Nonconformist establishments.

The disruptive effects of the coming of the Industrial Revolution to Wales had important consequences. A population explosion and the growth of urbanisation led to social unrest, and new ways of providing education for the people were essential. The speaking of Welsh was seen as an obstacle to progress for the labouring classes by the body of commissioners set up by the government in 1846. The Revised Code of 1862 excluded Welsh as a grant-earning subject, and not until 1895 did it became a class subject.

Some teachers refused to allow pupils to use Welsh in the classroom, and the authors give a particularly vivid description of the "Welsh not". This was a wooden plaque tied around the neck of the pupil speaking Welsh, and passed from one offender to another. The pupil wearing it at the end of the day was punished.

Jones and Roderick rightly emphasise informal as well as formal influences on the development of education. Most important in this category was the chapel, which was a social and cultural as well as a religious institution.

Perhaps the best known other influence was the National Eisteddfod, which allowed people to demonstrate their musical and literary talents, and promoted wide cultural interests. It was at the 1866 meeting that Land of My Fathers was adopted as the Welsh national anthem.

The 1867 Reform Act forged an alliance between the Nonconformists and Liberals and led to a change in Welsh politics. While the 1870 Education Act led to an increase in elementary education provision, there was a more momentous change in secondary and higher education fields. One of the most interesting sections of the book concerns the founding of the University of Wales as a federal entity. The establishment of intermediate schools following the Welsh Intermediate Act of 1889 provided a much-needed system of secondary education administered by the Central Welsh Board, and locally run.

Welsh local authorities refused to implement the 1902 Education Act. A pacific move five years later was the establishment of a Welsh department of the Board of Education, though it was based in London. The authors note that there was little change in the Welsh education system between 1902 and the outbreak of the Second World War. The post-war scene was typified by the growth of comprehensive schools (which took hold in Wales earlier and on a larger scale than in England), the burgeoning of higher education, the growth of Welsh-speaking schools and the establishment of a Welsh Office Education Department, part of the devolutionary process.

The final chapter traces the development of a Welsh curriculum and, since 1999, the founding of a Welsh Assembly responsible for the governance of all aspects of education. As the authors state, the ability of the people of Wales to control their own destiny, however circumscribed, is a touchstone of their nationhood. This thought-provoking book throws much light on political and social as well as educational aspects of Welsh history and is unreservedly recommended.

Peter Gordon is emeritus professor at the University of London Institute of Education

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