Biddy Passmore pays a visit to an improving comprehensive in Newport and investigates the growing popularity of schools that teach in Welsh.
English-speaking parents in Wales are choosing Welsh-medium schools for their academic and cultural edge, according to a new study.
Some are people of Welsh descent who regret their lack of the language and want their children to have what they missed. Others are English immigrants who want their children to be fully rooted in the local community. But common themes are that parents perceive Welsh-medium schools to have higher standards and better discipline and that they want their children to have the educational and employment advantages of growing up bilingual.
The study is based on interviews with parents who have children at one Welsh-medium and two English-medium primary schools in South Glamorgan, and was carried out between 1990 and 1993 by Anthony Packer and Cefin Campbell, both then at the University of Wales in Cardiff.
Mr Packer and Mr Campbell were intrigued by the growing tendency of English-speaking parents to opt for Welsh-speaking schools, most notably in the anglicised areas of south and east Wales.
When the first medium schools opened it was usually Welsh-speaking parents who chose them, taking "a calculated risk in what was then regarded as a curious experiment", the authors say.
By the late 1960s the schools had begun to win a reputation, but this success had caused disquiet in some sections of the Welsh community. The schools were seen as a way of allowing middle-class parents to keep an element of social selection when grammars disappeared. It had also been suggested that they were hotbeds of nationalism.
The study did not find stronger support for nationalism among parents in the Welsh-medium sector. But, while few of the parents they interviewed considered Welsh medium schools as selective, many made comments about high standards, the greater commitment of teachers and the quality of discipline.
Parents also perceived bilingualism as an advantage in finding employment in Wales.
Between 1982 and 1993, the number of Welsh-medium primary schools rose from 348 to 445 (more than a quarter of the total), with a further 123 using Welsh as the medium for part of the curriculum. The first designated bilingual secondary school was set up in 1951 and the number had grown to 44 by 1991 (one-fifth of the total).
But the authors warn that the great strides made with Welsh in primaries is not matched by secondaries. Fewer than 12 per cent of secondary pupils perform in Welsh as their first language and, in 1992, only 4.5 per cent of GCSE entries and 3.5 per cent of A level entries were for Welsh-medium papers.
The reasons for parental choice of Welsh-medium education is available from Cefin Campbell at Menter Cwm Gwendraeth, tel 01269 831281 and fax 01269 831818.