Since devolution in 1999, the Welsh language has topped the political agenda as ministers seek to create a truly bilingual nation. The government has invested millions of pounds and drafted numerous initiatives and strategies, with much of the focus on the education system.
In that time there has been a steady rise in the number of Welsh-medium schools, coupled with a growth in parental demand for Welsh education, and in 2010 a landmark 10-year education strategy was launched (see panel, below right).
But last month the publication of data from the 2011 census revealed a surprise drop in the number of people who speak Welsh, from 21 per cent of the population in 2001 to 19 per cent in 2011. This week further concerns were raised over the quality of Welsh language teaching in some English-medium primary schools and nurseries.
A report by schools inspectorate Estyn found that while most foundation phase settings are making progress in developing Welsh among pupils, teachers are not spending enough time on the task and lack confidence.
Gaps in teachers' knowledge and skills are affecting pupils' learning and development in the language, the report found, and while pupils' speaking and listening skills are generally good, their reading and writing skills are less well developed. Schools are often reluctant for pupils to read in Welsh before they have mastered English, and writing is often limited to simple words and phrases and filling in gaps on worksheets.
Welsh language development is one of seven main areas of learning in the foundation phase, Wales' play-led curriculum for three- to seven-year-olds.
"In the best schools, teachers are highly skilled, passionate and plan fun and stimulating activities," Estyn chief inspector Ann Keane said. "But, in a minority, staff are not devoting enough direct teaching time to developing the Welsh language and there are gaps in practitioners' knowledge and skills that are inhibiting the children's learning and development."
Estyn has concerns about children's progress in more than a third of non-maintained settings, where it says many pupils do not use the language while playing or learning without being prompted by adults.
The report also laments the low numbers of teachers who are fluent in Welsh and the fact that many use Welsh television programmes or DVDs to compensate in the classroom. Figures from the General Teaching Council for Wales show that 32 per cent of registered teachers in Wales speak Welsh but only 27 per cent are able to teach in the language.
The report calls on schools to make sure enough time is devoted to teaching Welsh in the foundation phase and to give teachers more time to practise and develop their own skills. Estyn also wants local authorities to provide better support and training for teachers. "Schools need to review, evaluate and plan engaging and effective ways for children to speak, read and write Welsh across all areas of learning," Ms Keane said.
Rhag, a group that campaigns for Welsh-medium education on behalf of parents, said the teaching of Welsh as a second language had been a "failure".
"This is due to a combination of factors, including lack of contact hours with teachers, a lack of necessary skills among teachers and a lack of commitment from schools," a spokeswoman said. "The teaching of the Welsh language in English-medium schools should be completely revolutionised, with the aim of establishing a learning programme that enables pupils to possess the necessary basic linguistic skills to live and work in a bilingual country."
Owen Hathway, policy officer for teaching union NUT Cymru, said Estyn's concerns must be examined. "One way to address any shortfall in lesson development is to ensure that teachers have access to ongoing training," he said. "We know that it is increasingly difficult for teachers to access continuing professional development due to financial and time constraints."
Spreading the word
The landmark Welsh Medium Education Strategy, published in 2010, calls for all pupils in English-medium schools to benefit from opportunities to develop Welsh language skills in order to "enrich their experience of living in a bilingual country".
About #163;10 million was earmarked to implement the strategy in 2010-11, and the following year a further #163;2.16 million was given to Wales' 22 local authorities. Another #163;5.65 million has been allocated for 2012-13.