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Welsh but not narrowly nationalistic

Even the prime minister will sit down for a cup of tea with the teacher unions these days but does all this talk amount to anything? On the eve of the Easter conferences Frances Rafferty opens a report assessing the strength of the unions.

Anyone attempting a description of Wales's home-grown teaching union, UCAC, has to be linguistically careful. For a start, UCAC is pronounced "Ick-Ack" and stands for Undab Cenedlaethol Athrawon Cymru.

And since the main plank of its activities is "promoting Welsh as the medium of teaching in Wales", it is not advisable to call it the National Association of Teachers of Wales.

While fluency in Welsh is not a membership stipulation, it's a de facto requirement given that union business is in Welsh. The Pounds 72 annual subscription would be wasted for those who couldn't read Yr Athro magazine (The Teacher) or follow conference proceedings.

With half of Welsh-speaking teachers and one in seven teachers in all Welsh schools, UCAC's major presence is in the 460 primary and 46 secondary schools where Welsh is the main language.

A third of its members teach in the Anglicised south and UCAC is the dominant teaching union in the four constituencies that returned a Plaid Cymru MP.

From UCAC's head office in Aberystwyth the general secretary, G Wyn James, says: "We'll put a membership print-out on the table. Other unions won't do that." He reports 3,547 full members plus 670 students.

The union affiliated to the TUC last year but doesn't subscribe to a political party and its daily affairs are skewed toward professional issues. Pay and conditions provoke UCAC to action and it held out against national curriculum tests for longer than any other union. Its boycott continued into 1995 on the grounds that "pressure of work hadn't been alleviated sufficiently". This year's conference in Newcastle Emlyn on April will debate pay, discipline and teaching approaches better suited to 14 to 16-year-old under-achievers.

The 22-year-old union's long-term campaign is for a distinctively Welsh curriculum. "Parents should be more involved, especially in rural areas. We want a curriculum more useful and relevant to the needs of Wales," says G Wyn James, adding that he wouldn't necessarily say an excessively academic curriculum is relevant to England either.

The ubiquity of the Welsh language is the single most distinguishing feature of education in Wales. Though Welsh-speaking more or less defines belonging to the UCAC, it is strenuous in rebutting charges of isolationism. "Our policy is that pupils should be bilingual by the age of 11," the general secretary says. Such a line doesn't amount to exclusive Welshness and to suggest otherwise is to invite the union to go to law. In the past year it has won two actions against the BBC - one for allegations that an UCAC teacher supported exclusively Welsh teaching; the other when a journalist claimed a member had said the English were a "nuisance".

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