Thursday, 17 April 2014

The dragon has three tongues?

Foreign languages are vital in order to understand other cultures,
and Welsh is vital to understand our own.
(Pic : CILT Cymru)
How should languages be taught in Welsh schools? What's the future of Welsh-medium education? What can we do to halt the decline in numbers taking modern foreign languages?

When they're not completing the London Marathon - setting what's likely to be a record time for an Assembly Member - Plaid AMs are
releasing a steady stream of policy papers. This time, their Shadow Education Minister Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) has put forward possible practical answers to the questions above (available here - pdf) .

The paper discusses the benefits of bilingualism in some length. I've done that before (Home truths? See me, please), so I'm not going to repeat myself. The important difference between what I wrote then and this paper is the discussion on economic benefits.

Language skills are still in demand globally, and the paper cites a 2012 CBI survey where three quarters of businesses say foreign language skills are a benefit – even if English acts a global lingua franca.

Welsh-medium Education

Around 70% of lessons in Welsh-medium schools should be
conducted in the language to ensure fluency and confidence.
(Pic : Aberystwyth University Education Resource Publisher)
Currently, there are 461 Welsh-medium (WM) primaries (32.6% of all primaries) and 56 WM secondary schools (24.7% of all secondaries).

It's generally accepted that up to 70% of lessons in WM schools should be in Welsh in order to "enable them (pupils) to....use it with confidence and fluency". Some WM schools vary in how much Welsh they teach, including so-called "dual stream" schools which teach Welsh and English-medium streams separately under the same roof.

The Welsh Government sets a current target of 25% of all school pupils in Year 2 (6-7 year olds) being assessed in Welsh first language by 2015. The figure currently stands at 21% - so they're not far off. There are, however, significant drop-off rates in later years, with 30% of pupils in WM primaries not going on to take any WM GCSEs.

The School Standards and Organisation Act 2013 places a duty on local authorities to draft Welsh-medium education plans (I've covered Bridgend's draft plan earlier this year). Despite this, there are doubts as to whether the Welsh Government will meet its targets and increase the number of Welsh-speakers.

The paper looked at examples in other nations and stateless nations which have minority languages, with the Basque Country picked out for special consideration. As I've mentioned before, they have a system where bilingual teaching is delivered in several different school types :
  • A : Those that teach Spanish exclusively with Basque as a side subject.
  • B : Half in Spanish, half in Basque.
  • D : Almost all teaching is exclusively in Basque.
  • X : All teaching is in Spanish.

Over a period of 30 years, the majority of schools have switched from A to D (though A remains the largest type of school). Type X schools have almost become extinct. The type of schools that are available locally depends upon the strength of the Basque language in the community - analogous to Welsh-speaking areas and Anglicised areas of Wales.

Despite this, they have the same issues as us. Research from Bangor University showed that while full immersion practically guarantees competence in a language, it doesn't guarantee its use outside the classroom - something raised as a result of Y Gynhadledd Fawr and Plaid's own consultation on the language.

In relation to WM education, Plaid propose measures which include :
  • Offering immersion courses in Welsh for English-stream students so they can continue to secondary school if they wish.
  • In the long-term, turning existing dual-stream schools into WM schools.
  • In Welsh-speaking areas, ensuring at least 80% of the curriculum is taught in Welsh in WM secondaries.
  • An "energetic campaign" to recruit more Welsh-speakers into teaching, and training programme to increase the number of Welsh-speaking teaching assistants.

Welsh second language

Plaid Cymru propose to scrap the much-criticised GCSE short
course in Welsh second language.
(Pic : Wales Online)
Welsh second language is a compulsory subject in all English-medium (EM) schools up to an including Key Stage 4 (GCSE). Pupils have the option of taking either a full Welsh second language GCSE or a short course. It's said 27% of pupils take the full course (A*-C pass rate : 76%) while 35% of pupils took the short course (A*-C pass rate 48%).

Estyn are quoted as saying that Welsh second language GCSEs, "do not produce bilingual pupils or young people who are significantly confident to use Welsh in their everyday lives".

A Welsh Government review in 2013 found several problems, including lack of contact time (as little as one lesson a fortnight for the short course), lack of teachers with the right skills (primary schools in particular) and lack of confidence amongst pupils to use the language. The review also said Welsh, as a second language, should be put in its social and historical context.

Plaid propose to, amongst other things :
  • Abolish the GCSE short course in Welsh second language (note: Plaid don't explicitly state they want to make Welsh second language a core subject at GCSE, but it was a recommendation of the Welsh Government review).
  • Increase the contact hours for teaching Welsh in EM schools.
  • Carry out an audit of language skills amongst teachers in EM schools.
  • Carry out international research into second language teaching to find out what works best.
  • Establish bilingual secondary schools outside of Y Fro, in which 50% of the curriculum is taught through Welsh.

Modern foreign languages (MFLs)

Modern Foreign Languages are only compulsory in Wales for three
years - said to be the shortest statutory period in Europe.
(Pic : Wales Online)
MFLs (Spanish, French, German etc.) are compulsory during Key Stage 3 (Years 7-9), but the numbers of Welsh pupils taking an MFL GCSE has declined over the last 20 years from 55% to 22%. Only 668 MFL A-Levels were taken in 2013.

CILT Cymru – the body for MFL teachers in Wales – says the reasons for the decline could include the fact that Wales "has one of the shortest statutory periods for teaching a foreign language in the EU" at just 3 years. They also raise the issue of lack of contact time to induce fluency, and that Year 9 pupils have many more GCSE subjects to choose from.

Elsewhere in Europe, as I've covered before, pupils generally start to learn a foreign language in primary school, often alongside an indigenous/regional language in Basque Country, Ireland, Belgium, Friesland etc. Also, a majority of English primaries now teach a foreign language, as do a large number of primaries in Northern Ireland.

Plaid Cymru propose following this example and introducing an MFL at Key Stage 2 (Years 3-6) – presumably it'll be French or Spanish - which is something that's also been supported by the Welsh Conservatives. They also support retaining a foreign language module as part of the Welsh Baccalaureate - a requirement that was recently ditched by the Welsh Government.

Exercising the strongest muscle

Introducing a third language at primary school shouldn't be too difficult,
but at secondary level, is the timetable in danger of becoming overcrowded?
(Pic : CILT Cymru)
Plaid are typecast as being a party "only for Welsh-speakers". It's long dogged them (although it's not a bad thing) in a manner which doesn't affect the SNP.

By avoiding being typecast in a similar manner, it's perhaps contributed to the SNP being seen as a firm alternative to Scottish Labour. They're short on paranoid monomaniacal Anglophones in Scotland, while Scottish Gaelic isn't anywhere near as prominent as Welsh is in Wales. Also causing difficulties is the fact Welsh isn't as mainstream as Catalan or Basque are in their respective nations.

The "trilingualism" proposal is one surefire way for Plaid to shake off that tag, whilst simultaneously supporting the Welsh language. Though the paper didn't offer many policy options when it comes to teaching MFLs, in fairness, aside from teaching it earlier, online courses and/or making it a compulsory GCSE (which I've supported before), I can't think of much else either.

It looks like Plaid want to adopt something similar to the Basque model. That's potentially a very difficult policy to implement, but a bold and ambitious aspiration none the less in the long-term.

There are almost certainly going to be difficulties. The most immediate ones are significant (60%+) cutbacks to bodies like CILT (more from Wales Eye) and a lack of teachers with the right skills. Realistically, a majority of teachers are going to have to be bilingual (whether English-Welsh or English-MFL or all) and/or able to teach across more than one subject in secondary schools to make up the numbers.

Another big concern would be resistance from the teaching profession. If I were looking at becoming a teacher in Wales at present – with the public criticism, numerous top-down targets, frameworks and strategies (I'm going to attempt to cover the recent OECD report for next week) – I'd probably think twice.

The good thing though is that most of the issues relating to literacy and numeracy appear to be at secondary school level, which teach MFLs and Welsh anyway, so don't need to make any major changes.

Even introducing a third language into primary schools might not be as difficult as it sounds. In fact, CILT have already piloted MFL teaching at Key Stage 2, which you can read more about here. The big issue will be language skills amongst primary school teachers and whether they're good enough to hold the attention of a class.

It seems every subject area is demanding to become a "core subject" nowadays - often with good reason - but they're competing for limited timetable space. If Plaid really want to teach more languages, and if we want things like PE in the core curriculum, then we're going to have to think seriously about extending the secondary school day, a shift to a six term system, and slowing everything down a little bit. Teaching unions will absolutely love that.

I've written enough about languages, so it's time for some maths. Look to the right hand column, in particular the number of posts.

54+167+148+130 = ?

When you have an answer, you'll realise I'm pretty much obliged to do something special for the weekend.


Post a Comment