Aled Roberts - A million Welsh speakers: the role of the education sector
The Welsh Government has set two ambitious targets by 2050, namely to reach a million Welsh speakers, and to double the percentage of the population who use Welsh daily. The Government’s Cymraeg 2050 strategy emphasises the central importance of the education sector in achieving this goal. The Government’s projection and trajectory to a million speakers is largely premised on increasing the number of individuals who leave school with the skills and confidence to use the language in their daily lives. It is also crucial to ensure that the further education and work based learning sectors maintain and develop the Welsh language skills of learners and satisfy the increasing demand for a bilingual workforce. This is crucial in fostering the connection between education, work and Welsh language use.
An important aspect of the Government’s educational strategy is to significantly expand Welsh medium education. Currently, around 22% of primary school children attend Welsh medium education, and the objective is to gradually increase this number to 40% by the year 2050. The growth of Welsh medium education has slowed over the past decade, and it is clear that more needs to be done to meet the increasing demand for Welsh medium and bilingual education. The Welsh in Education Strategic Plans (WESPs) of local authorities will be an important medium for expanding Welsh medium education across Wales, in line with the targets set out in Cymraeg 2050.
Whilst expanding Welsh medium education is central to the Government’s Welsh language strategy, it is clearly the case that the objective of creating more Welsh speakers is something that the education sector as a whole will have to address and contribute towards. Indeed, the Government’s education strategy towards reaching a million Welsh speakers is also focused on reforming the way Welsh is taught in English medium schools. The Government has set an ambitious target that by the year 2050, 50% of learners who leave English medium statutory education will report that they are Welsh speakers. This entails a complete transformation to the current situation, whereby very few pupils attending English medium schools develop the skills and confidence to use the Welsh language beyond the school gates. According to the Government, it is the new curriculum for Wales that will primarily drive these far reaching reforms, for example by replacing the ‘Welsh as a second language’ curricula in favour of one language continuum for all learners in Wales. Whilst it remains unclear what this means in practice, it seems that the vision is that a language continuum will allow schools to gradually and incrementally increase opportunities for pupils to learn through the medium of Welsh and to use the language in school. It is hoped that such a gradual reform process will allow pupils to move further and faster along the language continuum, and therefore to radically increase the contribution of English medium schools to the ambition of increasing the number of Welsh speakers.
As a result of implementing the above strategies, the Welsh Government predicts that in 2050, 70% of all learners will leave statutory education as Welsh speakers. It is important to emphasise that achieving this vision requires a fundamental shift in the way Welsh is taught and used in schools across Wales. Schools in 2050 will look radically different to what currently exists. Whilst such a radical reform is clearly implicit in the Government’s targets and Welsh language strategy, it is less clear whether this vision has been explicitly and effectively communicated to the educational sector as a whole in Wales.
This is significant, because implementing the above reforms will have far reaching implications for teachers, school learning support workers and educational leaders in Wales. If pupils are to gradually move along a language continuum, then the same is true for schools and the teaching workforce. Both central pillars of the Government’s language strategy are conditional on ensuring that enough teachers and support workers in Wales have the requisite linguistic skills and expertise in the first place. This is a considerable undertaking. It is not merely the challenge of ensuring enough teachers to support the growth of Welsh medium education, but also the need to develop the Welsh language skills of the current workforce across the statutory educational sector as a whole. This will surely require a rethinking of the role of Initial Teacher Education in developing an increasingly bilingual educational workforce, as well as how a professional development framework can significantly develop the skills and ability of the current workforce. As is true with respect to the new curriculum, it is teachers and learning support workers who will ultimately be responsible for achieving much of the Cymraeg 2050 vision. It is they who will have to do the actual work of turning policy documents and strategies into concrete pedagogical reforms that will positively impact learners. It therefore stands to reason that teachers and support workers should be given the support and resources needed for them to do this effectively.
The challenges that face the statutory education sector are also challenges that face the further education and work based learning sectors. Indeed, it could be argued that these sectors have not yet received the same investment and strategic emphasis as the statutory education and higher education sectors when it comes to bilingual provision. There is considerable work to do in these sectors. Recently, the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, working alongside the Welsh Government, published their Further education and apprenticeship Welsh-medium action plan. This action plan is ambitious and calls for radical and far-reaching reforms to the sector. A crucial aspect of the plan is to develop the Welsh language skills of the workforce, and increase the capacity of further education and work based learning providers to offer more bilingual provision. As is is the case with respect to the statutory education sector, developing a bilingual workforce will become an increasingly important strategic objective to the post compulsory sector over the next decades.
It is a time of significant change to the statutory education sector in Wales, and the teaching profession is fundamental to this process of reform. Whilst some degree of uncertainty is unavoidable within such a significant reform process, it is a cause of concern that the educational sector as a whole does not seem fully cognisant of the implications of the Government’s Cymraeg 2050 strategy to the education workforce in the future. More needs to be done to highlight the exciting opportunities that exist to develop the Welsh language skills of the workforce and to develop a bilingual pedagogy that meets the vision of the Cymraeg 2050 strategy. This is why it is crucial that the Government clearly communicates its vision for the Welsh language within education, and explains the implications of this for the education workforce. In doing so, it will be imperative to outline the underlying purpose of such policy documents and strategies in the first place. In the case of Cymraeg 2050, it is the desire to secure the vitality of a language that is an important aspect of what defines us as people and as a nation, and to ensure all individuals in Wales have the opportunity to reap the educational, social and personal advantages of bilingualism. This is a vision that everyone who teaches in Wales surely ought to share.
Aled Roberts began his role as Welsh Language Commissioner in 2019.