Rhagoriaeth i bawb – or possibly not

Michael St George February 22, 2013 1

Wales is doing its schoolchildren a disservice by insisting on educating them in Welsh.

On 7th February, Leanne Wood, the unashamedly leftist leader of the Welsh Nationalist Plaid Cymru party, appeared on BBC2’s Daily Politics Show, to be interviewed by host Andrew Neil. It wasn’t a happy experience, because the failings of the Welsh education system, compared with its English counterpart, had just been cruelly exposed.

Welsh educationOnly a few days previously, Estyn, the Welsh education system’s national inspection body, had published its Annual Report for 2012. It was a damning assessment of Wales’ school system. It pinpointed a need for more than half of all primary and secondary schools to achieve better standards of literacy and numeracy, but highlighted, most of all, some glaring disparities between educational achievements, from all stages through to that of 5 GCSEs at Grades A-C, compared with English equivalents.

Estyn’s report attracted a welter of criticism of Welsh education’s prevailing leftish-“progressive” orthodoxy, an orthodoxy for which Wood expressed full support: particularly damning, though, was the revelation that 40% of children in Wales enter secondary school with a reading age lower than their actual age, and the fact that the shortfall against equivalent English standards had been widening during Labour’s 13 years in power. Welsh children, in fact, are becoming more and more poorly-educated compared with their English counterparts.

Wood clearly struggled, under a classic Andrew Neil skewering, to justify any semblance of pretence that Welsh education meets the needs of its future citizens: but left unexplored, perhaps, was the socio-cultural dogma at or near to the roots of some of the malaise – that, despite the adverse effect on their education standards compared with rest of the country, a chip-on-the-shoulder cultural dogma dictates that in Wales, even the English children of English parents have to be taught in Welsh, just to try & preserve the language.

Welsh children start primary school, on average, up to a year earlier, purely so that they can understand Welsh enough to be taught in it. At the other end of the scale, there are reports of English universities having to give remedial classes to freshers from Wales, not just in the chosen degree subject because of the lower attainment levels, but also in English because the delivery of education in the Welsh language has left its recipients with an insufficient command of the English language to cope with a degree course.

The Welsh language, outside Wales and parts of the Marches, seems to have no significant body of co-located speakers outside a smallWelsh area of Patagonia and in a few similarly small areas of US cities. To cite that fact isn’t to make any kind of judgment on the language itself, much less on its speakers, but merely to observe that it has a very limited linguistic utility. If a language has a distinct transactional and economic utility and a wider cultural value outside its home locality, then it will subsist organically without state interference, particularly interference in the form of imposing its use on a population that otherwise wouldn’t give it a direct transactional and economic value, as opposed to an indirect cultural value.

Other perceived-to-be threatened minority British languages, particularly Manx and Cornish, understand this. What they do, apparently, is to try and create both motivation and opportunity to learn the languages, even by public subsidy, but, crucially, not by coercion. They seem to have some success at this.

Leftist officialdom in the Principality, however, has long displayed an extraordinarily sensitive attitude to the decreasing relevance of the Welsh language to an increasingly globalised world:  but it’s surely a particularly malign, even cruel, form of authoritarian cultural illiberalism for a polity to impose educational disadvantage on its members for such insular, defensive, and reality-resistant reasons.

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