Tuesday, 31 January 2017

I don't want to see division

This column appeared in the Llanelli Herald on 20th January 2016

From September 1st children in Llangennech who do not want a Welsh medium education will have to go outside their village to get it.

The move is justified by the Council because the last census showed a decline in the number of Welsh speakers in Carmarthenshire, and is part of the measures needed to achieve the Welsh Government’s target of doubling the number of Welsh speakers to 1 million by 2050.

Whilst Carmarthenshire Councillors were voting to set aside the objections from 757 people in Llangennech I was in the Senedd scrutinizing the Minister for the Welsh Language, Alun Davies, on the way Councils are converting schools like Llanegennech from Dual-Stream schools, where English and Welsh are taught side by side, into Welsh medium schools.

“We need to take great care in the way we deal with it” the Minister told me.  He and I share the ambition to ensure that all 16 year-olds are able to speak Welsh by the time they leave school, and continue to use it in everyday life. And we both want to maintain the goodwill that there has been towards the Welsh language.

I went to school in a primary much like Llanegennech, and I’ve always admired the way the children from different language backgrounds are educated together, and the way in which children who are not taught in Welsh are nonetheless exposed to the language everyday. This is in stark contrast to most primary schools where Heads struggle to recruit teachers and support staff who can speak Welsh. Children are often taught by adults who themselves not able to speak Welsh, and often leave school barely able to speak the language.

Carmarthenshire plans to turn all Dual-Stream schools into Welsh medium schools over the coming years. Where there are easily accessible English medium schools nearby this may not attract much comment, but in villages like Llanegennech there’s a risk that approach may be similarly divisive.  I don’t want to see that.

“We need different approaches in different areas” Alun Davies told the Assembly’s Culture and Welsh Language Committee this week. “I hope we can move away from negative debates and take time to reflect. Does a bilingual school deliver bilingual people? If not, why not? Let's have that debate without negativity” Alun Davies added.

I have deliberately not tried to use this issue to score points against the Plaid Cymru led Council. I do however, disagree with their approach. Rather than creating ever more Welsh medium schools I would prefer to focus on improving the quality of Welsh teaching for children who are not currently well served, and to run English medium schools into bilingual ones.

The Welsh Government will be looking at the best way of achieving its ambition of doubling the number of Welsh speakers by 2050, and I hope that the need to avoid the division we have seen in Llanegennech can be avoided.

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