We need a bit of both

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Welsh-medium schools should teach some subjects through English to boost true bilingualism, writes Helen Yewlett

Everybody always seems to think the grass is greener on the other side. It isn't. Currently much is being written about Welsh-medium education and in some correspondence there has been more than a touch of bitterness about the resources thrown at the sector at the expense of other schools.

This is undoubtedly a perceived advantage that in reality certainly did not exist in the Welsh-medium school I taught in for nearly 20 years.

The school was, to put it mildly, overcrowded. I have prayed while invigilating mock exams that no more ceiling tiles would fall on our examination candidates as some of the rain drumming on the roof found its way in to swell the tiles.

When it rained the buckets would come out. I have had to turn all the computers off and wait for the leaks to dry out before I could risk turning the equipment back on.

The network fault that gave me so much grief eventually was traced to damp causing swelling and contracting of the wall the wires ran against. So let us drop the "They've had it better than us" attitude.

There could, however, be other factors not related to resourcing which have not been considered. I am passionately for bilingual education and I am guilty of moving from one area to another in search of what I considered - and still consider - the optimum.

Dare I say it? I wanted my children to have a Welsh-medium education but I wanted them to be equally competent in English. Not for them the tears my father shed in private when he was outmanoeuvred on a committee because he had not appreciated the nuances of the English being used around the table.

I remember it so vividly. A vicar and a local district councillor in the borough of Brecknock, my father had wanted to place some of his parishioners, who desperately needed decent housing. But he had failed to make their case well enough at a council meeting.

No, for my children I wanted the complete balance. So I sent them to a school where the sciences, mathematics and IT were taught through English and the arts and the humanities were taught through Welsh.

Now, reputedly, boys are for the most part not naturally good linguists.

There are always the exceptions, but most would far rather play rugby, cricket or football than sit and read novels.

So, as the primary school boy moves into the secondary school environment, the gap in linguistic performance begins to open. Unless a Welsh-medium school has a strategy and the resources to counter this, very often the boys from non-Welsh speaking homes appear to feel alienated from the system.

However, there were at least the subjects taught through English where they could excel, and so many did. They stayed passionately pro-Welsh and pro the Welsh language. They participated in school eisteddfodau and enriched the life of the school. They also had very good academic results.

This option of studying some subjects through English is becoming less available, and careful analysis of examination results may well show a lowering of academic achievement among boys from non-Welsh-speaking homes.

There has been a determined swing by many Welsh-medium schools to deliver all subjects through Welsh. This is partly driven by funding, and by the argument that there is no place for any subject to be taught through the medium of English in a Welsh school (apart from English).

I am not convinced that we are doing our students a favour.

English may not be the most frequently spoken language internationally, but it is the one through which diplomatic, political, scientific and commercial dealings can be carried out throughout the world.

We must never forget this. Our children must be able to negotiate at the highest level in English. Maybe we should stop pressurising the Welsh-medium schools to deliver every subject through Welsh. We should also help them address the issue of raising the language skills of the teenagers not living in a bilingual home.

Bilingualism is a blessing. To be bilingual is a mind-set that allows multi-lingualism to come naturally. To speak Welsh is to link our children with their heritage and their roots and environment.

To be bilingual in English and Welsh is certainly a gift, and we should be proud that we can offer it to our children here in Wales. We must ensure we give the Welsh-medium schools the resources needed to enable all their pupils to achieve excellence in both languages.

One Welsh-medium school used to give lunchtime Welsh lessons to groups of six pupils at a time. Oh that we could give them the resources to do this for all Welsh and English lessons given at secondary level. Then we would have that excellence which our children deserve.

Helen Yewlett is subject leader for ICT at Ysgol Gyfun Llanhari, Rhondda Cynon Taf

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