Welsh language is bottom of class

17th December 2004 at 00:00
Estyn urges schools to improve quality but heads blame staff shortage for poor standards. James Graham reports

Schools are being urged to improve the teaching of Welsh as a second language, following a new report which says it has the worst standards of all subjects.

The inspection agency Estyn found that few pupils excel in Welsh, and teachers' expectations are low after it assessed the results of inspections and one-day visits that took place between 2002-4.

The report, into performance at key stages 2 and 3, conceded that general standards were improving but "only a little work is very good".

It blamed low expectations and the failure to offer a challenge for the worst shortcomings.

Susan Lewis, the chief inspector for education and training in Wales, now wants schools to use more Welsh outside language lessons, expand the range of reading, introduce new tests and improve continuity and progression between primary and secondary schools.

The report states: "Too often secondary schools begin teaching Welsh second language at too low a starting point, without giving enough consideration to pupils' previous achievements."

But many headteachers say the biggest problem is finding the right Welsh teaching staff and Estyn's report admits that "too many non-specialists teach Welsh as a second language in many schools".

"There is a shortage of qualified teachers of Welsh as a second language," said Brian Lightman, past president of the Secondary Heads' Association Cymru.

"We need to attract people into the profession who are not only Welsh speakers but are very good teachers of Welsh."

Mal Davies, head of Willows high school in Cardiff, believes the problem is particularly acute in the urban and "anglicised" south-east. "We don't have enough Welsh-language specialists because those with the skills often want to be in the Welsh-speaking areas or Welsh-medium schools," he said.

"We want to do a good service by the Welsh language and the only way we can do that is by having stable, qualified staff. Without that it's an impossible task for schools. By putting Welsh on the timetable it doesn't mean to say you can deliver it."

Another issue for inner-city schools is the ethnic diversity of pupils. At Cathays high school, also in Cardiff, English is a second language for 35 per cent of pupils.

But Moelwen Gwyndaf, general secretary of UCAC, the Welsh-medium teachers'

union, believes the problem lies in the apathy of many heads.

She said: "Welsh as a second language is not getting the support from the top at many schools. We're coming across teachers who don't want it being taught, in fact they're discouraging it. They don't think it's important.

"If it's to be successful, Welsh has to be seen as important by everybody in the school, not just the Welsh department."

Estyn's report acknowledges that some strides have been made, and has sought to inspire schools by focusing on what it describes as pockets of good practice where schools have used new technology or extra-curricular activities to improve standards.

One of its examples is Treorchy comprehensive in Rhondda Cynon Taf, which has employed a Welsh specialist to work with pupils in its feeder primary schools.

"When they come to us we have a good assessment of where they are," said head Bethan Guilfoyle.

The best pupils are then encouraged to learn history, geography and religion bilingually.

"I felt that if Welsh was to be regarded as a core subject then we should give it the same attention as maths or English," added Mrs Guilfoyle.

She said there were usually fewer applicants for Welsh jobs but vacancies have always been filled.

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