The national curriculum moved Welsh language education to the top of the schools agenda, but in spite of remarkable progress there are still challenges ahead, reports Mike Lewis
The mid-19th century was a turbulent period in Welsh history. As riots raged across the country questions were raised in Parliament as to why the Welsh were so prone to lawlessness.
The Welsh language was blamed by an 1847 Parliamentary report into Welsh education which led to the introduction of the notorious Welsh Not campaign.
Quickly becoming the most hated symbol of English oppression, Welsh Not was a means of forcing Welsh children to speak English in the classroom. A small slate inscribed with the letters W N was hung around the neck of a child caught speaking Welsh. At the end of the day that unfortunate would be punished.
More than 150 years later the wheel has turned full circle. The roll-out of the national curriculum in 1990 saw a gradual increase in the number of schools teaching in Welsh and, from September 1999, it has been compulsory for "the language of heaven" to be taught up to the age of 16.
"Welsh-medium education has seen remarkable growth over the last 30 years," says Meirion Prys Jones, chief executive of the Welsh Language Board.
"Demand from parents reflects the importance attached to gaining fluency in Welsh, and it is vital that these opportunities are further extended across Wales."
Not surprisingly the rapid changes in Welsh education have also presented challenges such as a raft of second-language issues; the shortage of bilingual teachers; and - the most emotive issue of all - the closure of small schools.
Enraged by plans in Carmarthenshire and Denbighshire to close or merge more than 50 Welsh-medium schools, protestors have vigorously defended them, aided by the Welsh language lobby who view the closures as an attack on the language.
"There is a prima facie case that smaller village schools perform far better educationally than larger establishments in more urban areas," said Ffred Ffrancis, the Welsh Language Society's (Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg) veteran education spokesman. "Counties that have the highest proportion of small schools achieve better GCSE results than other areas.
"We would like to see education and development units in every community throughout Wales. To achieve that we have to make better use of existing resources."
Rather than highlighting the negative aspects of small schools, Cymdeithas feels local authorities should be accentuating the positive. "It is educational madness to close down schools that are doing so well," said Mr Ffrancis. "Rather than focusing on their shortcomings, the question should be what are they doing so right? The people closing these schools seem to understand everything about buildings and nothing about communities."
The main reason for the closures is falling rolls, says Welsh Assembly spokeswoman Janis Pickwick. "By 2013 there will be a projected 52,600 fewer pupils in Wales. Pupil numbers in primaries have been falling since 1999.
Many schools in Wales are also very old and lack such essential facilities as indoor toilets and playgrounds.
"Our policy is that all schools should be fit for purpose by 2010, hence the current reorganisation that is being planned."
The Assembly has no statistical evidence to back up the claim that small schools perform better than larger ones, but it is thought that a soon-to-be-published report from Estyn, the inspectorate, will show parity between different-sized schools.
Two years ago, a 24-pupil school at Moylegrove, near Cardigan, was closed, and village children given the choice of attending larger primaries at St Dogmaels and Eglwyswrw. Yet mother-of-three Kathryn Robson said that children can be remarkably adapatable.
"Of course we were very sorry to see Moylegrove close but the welcome at Eglwyswrw has ensured that the transition has been as smooth as possible," she said. "We were fortunate to have a Category A school on our doorstep and not everyone has that choice.
"The children would go back to Moylegrove tomorrow if they could, but positive things have come out of the negative. The number of Welsh language speakers in the larger school is much greater and that certainly helped our eldest daughter who has now moved up to secondary school."
More children may now be speaking Welsh at school, but many are less inclined to use it outside the school gates. "It is a big problem," acknowledges Janis Pickwick. "Welsh speakers are urging that more Welsh should be spoken at home.
"The other hurdle to overcome is a lack of teachers who are bilingual. It's all very well calling for more people to speak Welsh but you need people to teach it. It's a chicken-and-egg situation but we are investing more money into training for teachers looking to improve their Welsh."
The phased introduction of the play-based foundation stage for three to seven-year-olds - due to be rolled out across Wales in the next two years - presents a different challenge as it requires a teacher-pupil ratio of one to eight in nursery classes rising to one to 13 in Years 1 and 2.
Ann Davies, headteacher of Ysgol-y-Dderi, near Lampeter - one of Ceredigion's two foundation pilots - is enthusiastic about the new system, but acknowledges the staffing problems.
"School numbers fluctuate and when they drop at the start of a term, people have to be laid off," she says. "Getting staff in a rural nursery such as ours is never easy because it's difficult to get people to travel."
Meirion Prys Jones acknowledges that while the teaching of Welsh up to key stage 4 has greatly enhanced its profile, more needs to be done to ensure pupils apply the skills they learn in the classroom.
"Promoting enthusiasm for the language is essential," he says. "The ability to communicate in Welsh is a skill that can enrich other aspects of life - socially and culturally as well as in the classroom."