Less than 150 years after pupils were liable to be punished for using their native tongue, Welsh is alive and kicking. Bilingual schools are now an acknowledged success story. Meirion Prys Jones, chief executive of the Welsh Language Board, says that pupils fluent in English and Welsh perform above the national average. In 2004, 62 per cent of pupils in Welsh-medium schools achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C, compared to 49 per cent in English-medium schools. "The evidence also shows they do well afterwards," says Mr Prys Jones. "They earn 10 per cent more on average."
It is a remarkable turnaround for a language which appeared to be dying after the industrial revolution of the 19th century. The Welsh Assembly government's policy document Iaith Pawb (everyone's language) recently set a path for the creation of a bilingual Wales. The document aims to increase the percentage of people speaking Welsh to 26 per cent by 2011, suggesting that the number of bilingual pupils will need to increase by 50 per cent by that year.
The Assembly has launched immersion pilots in four English-medium primaries to boost pupils' skills in Welsh and give parents the option of transferring their children to Welsh-medium education. The number of Welsh-speaking primaries has increased from 445 to 455 in the past 15 years, while secondaries have gone up from 44 to 54. And while 27,897 secondary pupils were classified as Welsh speakers in 1990-1, the figure rose to 40,221 by 2004-5. The number of Welsh-speaking primary pupils shows a rise of more than 3,500 in the four years leading up to 2004-5.
Iolo Dafydd, HMI, Estyn, will talk on bilingualism in Welsh schools on Friday, May 26 at 3pm