Love Welsh, hate the compulsory GCSE

27th August 2010 at 01:00
A bilingual Wales is a fantasy, so let us free those teenagers who struggle to learn the language

OK. Here goes. I am about to make myself extremely unpopular. I live in Wales, grew up in Wales and (apart from the rain and Bridgend) am generally rather passionate about my heritage. I consider myself Welsh. But - and this will cue brickbats from Welsh-speaking posse - I think it is high time we abolished compulsory Welsh at GCSE.

There. Said it. Guaranteed future ostracism from all crachach gatherings. I might as well move to Coventry now, before I get sent. Let me explain.

I learnt Welsh in school and resumed it as an adult about 20 years ago when I joined the BBC. Very belatedly, I intend sitting the GCSE next summer, because I enjoy learning languages and, without sounding arrogant, have an aptitude for them. I speak fluent German, raise my two daughters bilingually (English and German) and teach German and French in a local private school.

I am acutely aware of the value of speaking another tongue in our increasingly globalised world and have encouraged my own daughters to pursue three languages to GCSE and beyond. But they are top-set, linguistically competent girls. And that, precisely, is where my beef begins.

Let me introduce you to my nephew: a delightful young man and a talented sportsman, who can rustle up a mean chicken tikka to boot. He, is not, however, academically inclined. He has just sat his GCSEs and was "advised" by his school against taking German GCSE - with which I could have helped him - as his Welsh marks had not been up to scratch and they are the benchmark for taking other languages.

For the past two years, due to a Welsh Assembly edict, my nephew has been forced to sit in compulsory Welsh lessons. He was initially given double Welsh to cover the missing German quota. After growing increasingly frustrated and, understandably disaffected, he was forced to sit the GCSE exam. He had not learnt anything during the two-year course, finding it impossible to grasp even the rudimentaries.

Furthermore, this 80-week purgatory has stopped him from getting the extra help he so badly needs in English and maths, which he needs to get a place in college in September - and to cope in later life.

Being able to add up and communicating well in your mother tongue - and for three-quarters of us living in Wales, that remains English - is pretty important, I would say. Being able to talk about the environment, local facilities and the "World of Work "in Welsh, is not. And - here's the rub - you could sit a pupil like my nephew for 10 years in front of this syllabus and he still wouldn't progress.

I know, because I have taught similar pupils. Engaging, talented, humorous boys and girls, who excel in many areas of school life - but, when it comes to conjugating a verb, the parsing penny is never going to drop. Not in English. Not in French or German. Not in Welsh either.

In the face of this Hobson's choice, my nephew and his mates developed a seemingly stoic response: "The exam was a doddle. Me and the others just went in there, wrote our names and put something like 'Rydw i'n hoffi coffi' and went to sleep. I got 4 per cent in the mock, so I know I'm going to fail."

OMG. Is this what the Welsh Assembly intended, when it made Welsh obligatory for all pupils up to age 16 in 2000? To produce year after year of resentful, cavalier pupils, who spend most of their Welsh lessons indulging in tomfoolery and asking the overnight-greying teacher questions such as these: "I got 3 per cent, Miss. Is that a U star?"

This is not the way forward. And the results of the past three years prove my point. With the majority of less-able pupils taking (or in fact being coerced into) the "short course" option, a higher percentage of these same pupils have consistently "achieved" grades D to U than those receiving the required A* to C pass grades.

Compare this with the "full course" Welsh, which means most pupils chose to take it, and you have, on average, nearly 70 per cent of pupils achieving grades A* to C. I rest my case.

The Welsh Assembly, with its Welsh-medium education strategy, is insistent that it wants to give every pupil the "entitlement" to learn Welsh and "has no plans to change the policy at this time". But since when has entitlement meant compulsion?

Derec Stockley, the WJEC's director of examinations and assessment, concedes that they "need to look at the kind of courses offered" and admitted the mandatory element of Welsh for all is "to do with status, isn't it? ... The Welsh Assembly wants a bilingual Wales."

A bilingual Wales? Despite my love of languages, this is never going to happen. Not in a million years. I'm well aware of the argument that if you live in Wales and consider yourself Welsh, then you must master the lingo, but this is insulting to kids like my nephew and his mates, who are as Welsh as any be-gowned Bard and proud of their roots. Being and feeling Welsh is not just about "siarad Cymraeg".

You cannot reduce national identity to a language. Our warmth, our passion, our world-famous hwyl goes beyond the realms of rhetoric. Come on Welsh Assembly. It's time to remove this ineffective, educational straitjacket.

It is time to acknowledge that making Welsh optional and invigorating the way it is taught to ensure that those who choose it will excel, is not indicative of defeat.

You owe it to all our pupils - in particular, my thoroughly Welsh nephew and his friends. And if you don't - and they fail their English and maths exams because of the lack of much-needed extra tuition - you will have achieved the dubious accolade of ruining several boys' futures and reducing the Welsh language to a single sentence. Rydw i'n hoffi coffi. Indeed. And my nephew doesn't even like coffee ...

Caroline Sarll, Supply teacher and freelance journalist.

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