I am writing this blog in response to some comments made on Twitter about the developing debate regarding Welsh language education in Wales and some of the arguments being put forward about the failure of second language education in English medium schools.
Before trying to unpick what is a vast and important debate, particularly in the run up to the 2016 Welsh elections and curriculum reform, I would like to acknowledge some truths from my 15 year experience teaching Welsh as a second language in English medium schools in South East Wales. Firstly, I accept bilingualism has not been achieved despite compulsory Welsh for all students. I also accept this is a failure given the investment in the language and its inclusion on the curriculum in Wales. Report after report has highlighted this fact and the current debate is both relevant and needed to address the issue if we are truly determined as a nation to continue to invest in the language and establish ourselves as a bilingual country.
There are many aspects to the failure of English medium schools in terms of producing confident Welsh speakers. One argument I have heard over and over recently is the poor quality of teachers and this is why it has failed. I am not for one minute advocating that all Welsh second language teachers are high quality and I am certain in some individual cases, this may indeed be part of the reason. However, there are also very high quality and very hard-working first and second language speakers working in our schools who do a very good job despite a system that is both unfair and unrealistic.
Lets look at the picture in more detail:
Provision in terms of time for Welsh at KS2,3 and 4 varies considerably from school to school and the experiences of students and exposure to the language are not consistent. There are other pressures on schools where standards of literacy and numeracy dominate curriculum time at present. This is a leadership issue and not the fault of the teacher. In some cases KS2 and 3 have teachers teaching who are learners themselves and this is indeed an issue causing further confusion. Care is needed in presenting arguments because a non-speaker or learner is not the same as a second language speaker; where teacher training should be assessing the standard of Welsh of a prospective teacher before qualifying to the post. My view is the picture is a mess due to poor management and implementation of the curriculum changes from the outset. Demand outweighed supply and this contributed to the problem because the gap had to be filled.
Learning a language takes a long time! It can only be realised if there is frequent exposure to the language and a curriculum that is focussed on the desired outcome, planned carefully and resourced effectively from a leadership perspective – including teaching of other subjects through the medium of Welsh. The expectations are unfair under the current arrangements. The standard expected for the GCSE examination and assessment arrangements for the course serve to turn our young people off continuing to study the language at A-level and the gap between the two in terms of expectation are already vast to any observer. The curriculum itself creates negative attitudes to the language for the majority of students because it’s not focussed effectively on developing confident speakers.
Facing these negative attitudes in class, due to the very demanding and unrealistic assessment arrangements and the inconsistency in provision, the Welsh second language teacher has to work. I frequently face negativity from some parents who state openly that they would prefer their children were not forced to learn a language they will never use. Given the pressures on standards of English and Mathematics, school leaders have to make tough choices about curriculum time and because Welsh does not feature in any performance measures of schools or the Welsh Baccalaureate, then the status of Welsh is reduced further.
In conclusion, I would like to re-iterate that I agree Welsh language education in English medium schools has failed. However, I do not agree with the argument being made by some that it is due to the poor quality of teaching. I hope the points I have made here clearly illustrate that most second language teachers have done an amazing job against a backdrop of obstacles and difficulties. I truly hope teachers are not made scapegoats for the massive failure of government policy and planning in this area. Many of the students I have taught over the years who are now parents themselves have opted to send their children to a Welsh medium school. I genuinely hope that my work with them in second language lesson has contributed to their decision and if so … that is a real and tangiable success.