Not so much valleys as rocky outcrops: welcome to Patagonia's only Welsh-language primary

28th May 2010 at 01:00
As school's popularity with locals grows, even singing of Argentinian anthem gets bilingual treatment

When ysgol yr Hendre opened its doors to 25 pupils in Argentina it fulfilled its ambition to be the only Welsh-language primary school outside the UK.

But it hardly imagined that within four years it would outgrow its central location in the town of Trelew, named in honour of Lewis Jones, one of the founders of the Welsh colony in Patagonia, Argentina.

When pupil numbers doubled in just three years, the school realised that once the first intake of nursery children reached Year 7, in 2013, it would have to find space for 170 students - 100 more than originally predicted.

It is now set to build a new school to help meet the unexpected demand for Welsh-language education in the South American country.

"The background of the children has changed a lot in the past four years," said Catrin Morris, a parent and teacher at the school.

"In the beginning, 80 per cent or more of the kids attending had some kind of Welsh background - at least their grandparents were of Welsh descent.

"Now half the school's intake are Argentines of non-Welsh descent. For instance, we have one family from Uruguay that's learning three languages, Spanish and Portuguese at home and now Welsh.

"We didn't think it would ever be so popular."

The site of the new school is only a stone's throw from Moriah chapel, where the remains of many of the first Welsh settlers, who arrived in the area in 1865, are buried.

"It has been very exciting how the plans for the school and the new building have developed and that we'll be able to move to this beautiful spot," said Ms Morris.

"The education (the school) is offering is very innovative in Argentina. There are lots of bilingual schools, but none offers core subjects such as maths in a non-Spanish language.

"We do try to teach maths in Welsh even if it means giving extra maths classes in Spanish also. We try to split everything. It's not a system offered anywhere else."

The school cannot rely solely on the regional government's support, but has to seek other forms of finance in both Argentina and the UK, Ms Morris said.

In August, Welsh tenor Rhys Meirion will undertake a fundraising tour of Welsh Patagonia to raise cash for the school.

A former headteacher himself, Mr Meirion admires the "old- fashioned individual attention in small class sizes" provided at Ysgol yr Hendre - something which also accounts for its growing waiting list of pupils from both Welsh and non-Welsh backgrounds.

The school also likes putting its own twist on local traditions such as the daily ritual of singing the national anthem while raising the Argentinian flag.

"We do this ... but in Welsh," Ms Morris said.

Tongue and groove

Ysgol yr Hendre (its original site is pictured above) was founded in 2006 to give Welsh language education to children in the east Argentinian province of Chubut.

Settlers from Wales first came to the region in 1865.

The school's popularity follows fears that the Welsh tongue was destined to die out in the original Welsh settlements of Patagonia.

While the Spanish-language part of the teaching follows the local Chubut curriculum, the Welsh component is loosely based on Wales's curriculum.

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