Parlez-vous Welsh?

20th February 1998 at 00:00
More and more west-of-the-border schools are using the ancient tongue, with surprising results. Angela Trainer investigates

It seems like an ordinary parents' open day as the headteacher cites the excellent exam results, extra-curricular activities and good discipline that make the school one of the best in the area. Yet few of the parents can understand a word he is saying. Some look to their children for help. Others wait for the translation. Like most subjects at Ysgol Gyfun Y Strade (Stradey School) in Llanelli, Carmarthenshire, headteacher Geraint Roberts' speech is delivered in Welsh.

Go into the French classroom here and the translations on the wall are in Welsh too. Pupils learn that trois translates as tri, and aujourd'hui as heddiw.

Welsh-medium education is not new - the first Welsh-speaking school opened in Aberystwyth in 1939 - but it is on the increase. More than 12 per cent of pupils now go to Welsh-speaking primary schools, and 27 per cent to secondaries, up from 9 per cent and 12 per cent in 1988. And many of these children come from English-speaking homes. Only 36 per cent of Stradey Year 7 pupils come from homes where Welsh is spoken.

With the establishment of a Welsh assembly set to fuel interest further, some educators foresee a time when most pupils in Wales are taught in Welsh, even though fewer than 20 per cent of Welsh people speak it.

So why the sudden popularity? The answer is that Welsh seems to get results. Most of the 52 Welsh-medium and bilingual schools improve on the national average of 45 per cent of pupils gaining at least five GCSEs at grade C and above. Stradey, like many others, has a success rate of more than 60 per cent.

Yet these schools have none of the advantages of most high-achieving schools - they take pupils from all sectors of society and are totally funded by cash-strapped local education authorities. Yet they often succeed despite having fewer resources than English-medium schools.

Experts say the reasons are many, including strong parental commitment, the work of playgroup movement Mudiad Ysgolian Meithrin and a growing Welsh consciousness. Some say bilingualism itself aids academic success. They cite the research of Dr Jim Cummins, of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Canada, who said studies have shown positive effects of bilingualism in five areas: ability to analyse and become aware of languages; academic language skills; conceptual development; creative thinking; and sensitivity to communicative needs of the listener.

John Valentine Williams, chief executive of the Welsh qualifications, curriculum and assessment authority, Awdurdd Cymwysterau, Cwricwlwm Ac Asesu Cymru (ACCAC), agrees with this view. "It helps in the development of language skills and must benefit other subjects, such as modern languages," he says. "My daughter Amy, who was educated in Welsh, summed up the benefits a few years ago. She said she didn't mind making mistakes with languages when she was in secondary school because she had gone through the embarrassment of learning different language codes when she was younger."

Huw Thomas, head of Ysgol Gyfun Gymreg Glantaf in Cardiff, believes the schools succeed because they have a sense of purpose. "A Welsh-medium school is a mission statement in itself. The school community shares a feeling of belonging because they are different."

Some parents of English-speaking children have reservations. Gloria Richards is in two minds about sending her 10-year-old daughter Shelley to Stradey. She says: "I'm concerned she will struggle because we don't speak Welsh at home." Mr Roberts tells her: "It will be good for your daughter. If she has a problem with homework she will have to think about it carefully, translate it into English, listen to your explanation, and think about it again to translate it into Welsh."

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