All teachers to be offered three-month sabbatical in bid to revitalise their native language skills. Nicola Porter reports
Every primary, secondary and further education teacher in Wales is to be offered a three-month career break to learn the "language of heaven". By the end of this year teachers should be able to apply for a sabbatical to learn Welsh. The first pilot immersion courses are expected to start in January 2006, with around 160 places on offer in the first 18 months of the scheme.
Follow-up sessions to help teachers build on their new-found language skills are also proposed.
The Assembly government has set aside pound;2 million a year for three years for the pilot, part of its Iaith Pawb strategy to increase the number of Welsh speakers.
Funding will cover supply costs and teachers' travel and subsistence, as well as training.
An Assembly government spokesperson said: "The pilot will, initially, focus on those teachers who have some Welsh-language skills but who lack the confidence to teach in a Welsh-medium or bilingual setting."
But while the move to maximise teaching through Welsh has been largely welcomed, some school heads are uneasy about funding - and providing cover for well-established teaching staff.
Mal Davies, head of Willows high school in Cardiff, said: "The implications of this are awesome. This initiative will be popular among my staff, but heads will be left with the nightmare of how to arrange good-quality cover for important lessons such as English and maths."
But he added: "This is the way to make Welsh a more widely-spoken language, and I hope it will help solve the huge shortage of Welsh-language teachers."
Chris Britten, head of Pen y Bont primary in Bridgend, said: "I would query how many teachers could realistically go on these courses. It's a great idea, though, and three months will give teachers plenty of time to learn Welsh -unlike some of the 18-day crash courses that have been held previously."
He is suspicious about funding, and estimates that supply costs alone would be around pound;7,000 per teacher, adding up to pound;140m if 20,000 of Wales's 29,000 teachers eventually undertook sabbaticals.
Anna Brychan, director of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, said the scheme was a great idea but raised similar concerns.
"There doesn't appear to be many places in the pilot and I am left thinking it will never be funded well enough to be available to every teacher in Wales over time."
The 2001 census recorded a rise in Welsh speakers, from 19 to nearly 21 per cent of the population. The biggest increase has been among young people, and all schools have had to teach the subject to age 16 since 1999.
But schools, particularly in anglicised south Wales, complain of problems recruiting good quality Welsh teachers The far-reaching plans were put before the Assembly's education and lifelong learning committee last week. Plaid Cymru Assembly Member Owen John Thomas praised the ethos of the scheme but told committee members: "We must make sure these courses are long enough for teachers to get a full grip of the language."
Top civil servant Richard Davies said courses would probably be around three months. Any longer could prove "inflexible".
ELWa, the post-16 funding agency, has already developed a pilot training programme in language skills and bilingual methodology for post-16 teachers, which will be extended to all secondary teachers. The primary-school initiative is being overseen by a project board of teachers, and details should be finalised by the end of July.
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