More myths from the land of legends

9th May 1997 at 01:00
Reports of a decline in exam performance are exaggerated. Adrian Mourby explains.

To anyone living outside Wales, our sensitivity over the language issue must be a difficult thing to credit, although Cymraeg is now so firmly established in the nation's life that any talk of its constituting an "issue" ought to seem passe. And yet recent reports in The TES and Western Mail about poor academic performance in the subject have drawn the kind of heated -and tart - responses that Welsh-speaking men and women keep in reserve for anyone who attacks their very identity. The worst sin a London journalist can ever commit is to write about the Welsh language in anything but glowing terms because the English invariably get their facts, and any interpretation of those facts, wrong.

Nevertheless, given the recent ruffling of feathers in the education press, it is worth trying to wade through the confusion and sort out some of the myths, particularly because a new and invidious one seems to be forming.

Primary among the myths about the Welsh language are two that are the causes of much resentment on both sides of the linguistic divide. First, people in pubs do not drop into Welsh only on the arrival of non-Welsh speakers. Having spent some time sitting in North Wales pubs myself, I can assure English visitors that the your arrival can cause a hiatus in the conversation, but it resumes, usually in the language spoken prior to your arrival.

Second, the "Welsh-Not" notices that were placed around the necks of Welsh-speaking children in the nineteenth century were not a form of punishment for speaking a forbidden language (Welsh was never forbidden). Usually it was at the request of ambitious parents that this badge was worn, much as hospital patient might have "Nil by Mouth" around his neck today.

It is important to understand this background of myth and mutual suspicion when drawing inferences from February's report of "comparatively poor results in Welsh in areas where the language is strongest". The Welsh Office statistics being quoted here were for key stage 2 national tests for 11-year-olds. They constitute a curious anomaly which was set into an even more curious context because very good results were being achieved in certain unitary authorities where the language was spoken far less. Why were children in North Wales being outperformed by South Walian children in, of all places, Cardiff where Cymraeg is the language of officials and television producers but not the generalpopulation?

Of course the truth is that they weren't, but that hasn't stopped the Society for Welsh in Education accusing those who have highlighted this paradox of drawing "meaningless" and "antiquated" inferences from the figures.

The crucial distinction that must be made at this point is that the Welsh language is taught in two ways within the principality: as a "core" subject in schools that are classed as Welsh-speaking; and as a "foundation" subject in English- speaking schools. (To make matters slightly more confusing, Welsh can also be taught as a second language "foundation" subject in some Welsh-language schools).

Roughly 25 per cent of Welsh maintained primary schools are classed as Welsh-speaking; the majority of these are to be found in the north and west, traditional Welsh-speaking areas such as Gwynedd and Anglesey. In 1995, 7,438 out of 8,634 pupils in these two counties at key stage 2 were being taught Welsh as a first language and only 1,196 (13 per cent) as a foundation subject. In Cardiff the situation is reversed, with only 1,011 KS2 pupils learning English as a "core" subject out of 14,391 (a tiny minority of 7 per cent).

Although Welsh is an official language throughout Wales, it has only recently been introduced to the capital and there are still very few Welsh-speaking schools there. There is a lot of competition for places among those who are committed to the language or to a form of free, selective education. The standard of Ysgol Glyntaf in Cardiff is one of the highest within the Welsh maintained system.

Why this demographic information is important is that the KS2 results for Wales' 22 unitary authorities only assessed Welsh in those schools where it is taught as a core (first-language) subject.

In South Wales the results are impressively high with 51 per cent of pupils in the "second language" county of Pembroke reaching level 4 as against 42 per cent in Anglesey. But it has to be remembered that those pupils studying Welsh in South Wales will be coming from highly motivated families who have had to push to get their children into the few Welsh-speaking schools. Moreover these parents are usually Welsh-speaking themselves, holding on to their language as a political gesture in a land where it is not widely spoken. Whereas in North Wales there will be many immigrant children going to their local school whose first language is not Welsh, whose parents do not speak the language and quite possibly have not great enthusiasm for it either.

Paradoxically, as the Society for Welsh in Education claims, the lower the perceived standard of Welsh results in Welsh-speaking areas, the more schools must be choosing to teach Welsh as a first- language "core" subject and so the stronger the language is growing.

Statistics bear this assumption out. Since 1991 the number of Welsh schools not teaching any Welsh has dwindled from 244 to a mere 27. For many Welsh people, this can only be for the good. With no discernable border, no separate judiciary, no parliament (yet) and no autonomous history since Henry VII united Wales with England, Cymraeg has in recent years become almost the defining characteristic of Wales and Welshness. No wonder it expects to be treated with kid gloves in the press.

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