The Carmarthen Journal billboard at the petrol station last night screamed "SCHOOL TO TEACH IN WELSH SHOCK". As headlines go in this part of Wales, that's a bit like "POPE IS A CATHOLIC!"
In the paper itself is a report
that governors of Ysgol y Ddwylan in Newcastle Emlyn are proposing to
change the category of the school and to phase out the English stream.
The report is reasonably balanced, although the sensation-seeking headline
"Primary governors reveal plans to ditch school English stream" was
probably the first shot in what could turn out to be a bitter battle.
miles down the road from us, Ysgol Gynradd Aberteifi took a similar
decision last year, and a vocal minority kicked up a storm in the local
press, with all of the usual prejudices and ill-informed arguments
getting an airing. The campaign culminated in the appearance of the
notorious BiLingo website, almost certainly the work of someone in the
south of Ceredigion, and that row was duly picked up by the Daily Mail and other London newspapers.
chair of governors of Ysgol y Ddwylan, Sioned Thomas, told the
newspaper that the school should never have been split into English and
Welsh streams in the first place. The County Council is said to be
supportive of the change, and that is at least something. The town's
senior school, Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn, is also taking steps to improve its
Welsh language provision.
Bearing in mind that the 2001
census showed that 69% of the population of Newcastle Emlyn was Welsh-speaking in 2001,
you have to ask what kind of thinking it was the led the local authority
to maintain a large English stream in the town's only primary school
and to run an overwhelmingly English secondary school. Details of what
has happened to the language at a local level since 2001 are due at the
end of this month, and we can be certain that the percentage for
Newcastle Emlyn will not be 69%.
If anyone in the upper
echelons of the council wonders why there is so much anger about the
authority's attitude to the Welsh language, the example of what has been
done to this small traditional market town may help to explain it to them.
Ysgol y Ddwylan has around 280 pupils aged between 4 and 11 and serves both the town and several of the surrounding villages. It has a deservedly good reputation and acts as a feeder school for both Ysgol Dyffryn Teifi in Llandysul and Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn in Newcastle Emlyn itself.
Currently all children from Year One onwards opt for either the Welsh or the English stream. Unlike the primary school in Cardigan where there were just two children in the last intake into the English stream, the English stream at Ysgol y Ddwylan is large.
There have been mutterings from some parents of children in the English stream in the past who feel that the Welsh stream is better resourced, although they would be hard put to come up with any evidence to back up that claim. It is also true that a minority of the parents are of the type that occasionally feature in Jac o' the North's blog.
The next step will be a formal consultation, and if the proposals are implemented, children currently in the English stream will continue through the school unaffected.
If the proposals are presented sensitively and the benefits explained, there is every reason to expect that a majority of parents will accept the change, but the County Council needs to pull out all the stops and ensure that it provides additional resources to help children from non-Welsh speaking homes with extra language tuition where needed.
In the last year or so, a number of children from homes where no Welsh is spoken have been moved from the Welsh stream to the English stream because of poor language skills. That will not be an option in the future, and for the sake of those children and the rest of their class mates, it is essential that additional support is provided.
As for the parents themselves, the Welsh Government has sponsored a scheme called Cymraeg i'r Teulu (Welsh for the Family) to provide heavily subsidised Welsh language classes specifically designed for parents with children being taught through the medium of Welsh. As with so much else in Carmarthenshire when it comes to the language, provision has been extremely patchy to put it mildly.
Although the scheme cannot hope to produce parents who become fluent in Welsh with just an hour and a half of teaching once a week over a year or so, it does at least help non-Welsh speakers get their bearings in the language, and kids love it when they see their parents taking an interest, even if that usually takes the form of mockery as mum and dad struggle to pronounce words correctly.
Contrary to the expectations of cynics, parents attending these course are not middle class "pushy parents", but overwhelmingly ordinary working class people who just happen to care about their children's education. Cymraeg i'r Teulu may not help them understand every word in their children's reading books, but they will at least know how to pronounce words, and will definitely get the gist of the story.
As for the wider picture the proposed change, even if long overdue, will put up a sign to anyone considering moving to this part of Wales that this is not a rainier version of Billericay or Birmingham. If you don't want to make an effort to integrate, don't come here.