Entrenched views could threaten the future of Welsh, reports Emma Burstall. Serious doubts are emerging in Wales about whether the compulsory introduction of Welsh at key stage 4 in l999 will go ahead as planned.
The Welsh Office response to the alleged failure of three Gwent secondary schools to teach Welsh is regarded as a crucial test of the Government's resolve. But the Welsh Office is guarded: "We are awaiting a full and detailed response from the school governors before deciding what to do."
Professor David Reynolds, a former Cardiff academic now at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, believes the future of Welsh hinges on whether these schools, which are all close to the English border, are forced to comply with regulations. "The Welsh Office needs to send a clear signal to other schools that have been unwilling to take up Welsh, mainly in Gwent and Clwyd," he says.
Richard Daugherty, professor of education at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, predicts trouble unless there is a serious debate soon about the requirements that will be imposed on schools in l999. "Schools in predominantly English-speaking areas will need a different Welsh programme from schools in Welsh areas," he points out. "Many headteachers in English-speaking areas were mighty relieved when the requirement to teach Welsh at key stage 4 was suspended. There are some very entrenched positions."
There is also a fear that there will not be enough staff qualified to teach Welsh to Year 10 pupils. David Winfield, secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers in Wales, says: "When schools advertise for Welsh-speaking teachers there are very few applicants and the numbers the universities are turning out are pitiful. If we're not careful, we're going to end up with a ragbag of teachers who can speak Welsh but can't teach it properly."
However, Awdurdod Cwricwlwm ac Asesu Cymru (the Curriculum and Assessment Authority for Wales) is confident about the strategies under way to boost numbers of Welsh-speaking teachers, including a national training programme run by the Welsh Joint Education Committee. Chairman Rudi Plaut explains: "There are lots more Welsh-speaking teachers coming through training colleges and many teachers who knew some Welsh have been brushing up. This will continue to be an area of concern but it's being tackled."
His optimism is shared by Richard Roberts, adviser for Welsh in the national curriculum, responsible for helping local education authorities identify teachers' training needs, as well as writing and delivering training material. He says implementation of Welsh in the national curriculum at key stage l has been successful. There have been more hitches at key stage 2.
"These teachers may need more intensive language instruction, or maybe we need more specialist teaching in Years 5 and 6. Most schools have appointed curriculum leaders to co-ordinate the teaching of Welsh and are addressing the issue," he says. "The only real difficulty is key stage 4, but schools have plenty of time to recruit new staff or train existing teachers. Only people who are opposed to the teaching of Welsh seem to see insurmountable difficulties. "
ACAC admits there is much work to be done preparing new teaching materials. Helen Adler, professional officer for Welsh, says: "We still need lots of reading books, computer software, tapes and videos. But we're getting to grips with this and over the next five years an awful lot more children should be speaking Welsh."
Not everyone is quite so buoyant. Some teaching unions are still deeply unhappy about the national curriculum workload, particularly with the extra subject of Welsh.
UCAC, the 4,000-member Welsh teaching union, is waiting for an ACAC report on testing and assessment due out this autumn before deciding whether to boycott assessments at key stages l, 2 and 3 again this summer. Wyn James, its general secretary, says: "Schools can't be expected to deliver the national curriculum in its entirety. There's far too much of it. There has to be some flexibility. "