The evolution of Welsh language education planning – Committee calls for a stronger and more consistent national approach

Published 03/07/2023   |   Reading Time minutes

The framework that supports the development of Welsh language education provision needs strengthening, with robust monitoring of local authority progress to boot. This was one of the key findings from the Senedd’s Culture and Welsh Language Committee report on the legislative framework that supports Welsh-medium education provision.

The Committee inquiry, which included two members from the Children, Young People and Education Committee, concluded that the Welsh Government should develop a national framework that will provide a single consistent approach to Welsh language education planning across Wales. This will support the broader ambition of reaching a target of a million Welsh speakers by 2050.

A need to strengthen and further refine the framework

The current framework was established over a decade ago, and required local authorities to prepare a Welsh in Education Strategic Plan (WESP) for their area every three years. A local authority’s WESP sets out its ambition and programme for developing Welsh-medium education provision and improving standards of teaching in Welsh.

The level and extent of that ambition was an area of concern for the Committee, with significant variation in the standard and quality of each WESP. It heard that some authorities were far too focussed on what they hoped to deliver, rather than what’s actually required, with some criticism aimed at local authority leadership in parts of Wales. The Committee noted the need to encourage and support cultural acceptance of the benefits of developing Welsh language education provision locally.

While the Committee recognised that there’d been significant improvements to the framework over the years, the evidence also identified weaknesses. At present, WESP development focusses on the Welsh-medium offer, with the potential for it to be treated in isolation, separate from the authority’s broader education policies. Stakeholders such as Rhieni dros Addysg Gymraeg (RhAG) told the Committee that the Welsh language must be “at the heart of the plans of all our local authorities, and not some kind of bolt-on or add-on.”

Cymraeg 2050 targets won’t be achieved solely by developing provision in the Welsh-medium sector. The Welsh Government’s target is that by 2050, 70% of learners are able to speak Welsh when they leave school. Currently, around 16% of children receive their education wholly through the medium of Welsh, while around 73% receive their whole education through the medium of English. Therefore, the English-medium sector has a big contribution to make towards achieving the target. As the Cymraeg 2050 strategy says: to reach a million speakers:

we need to transform how we teach Welsh to learners in all other schools, in order that at least half of those learners report by 2050 that they can speak Welsh by the time they leave school.

As a further backdrop, the recent Welsh Language Census results provide much food for thought for policy-makers, with a 6 percentage point decrease over the previous decade in the number of 5-16 year olds reporting being able to speak Welsh. However, the Welsh Government has suggested that the data might not show the full picture regarding Welsh language ability.

Recent developments to support the growth of Welsh language education provision

The Welsh Government has amended the framework over the last few years, with the aim of rectifying various shortcomings. This includes moving to a proactive planning system of promoting Welsh language provision, rather than relying on a demand-led assessment of need locally. The Welsh Government also moved WESPs to a 10-year cycle, seeking to reduce the planning burden on authorities and to “encourage better strategic planning” and alignment to Welsh Government funding.

The Welsh Government has also sought to grow capacity and improve the Welsh language skills of the teaching workforce through its Welsh in education workforce plan. The Committee’s report asserts that the future success of the WESP framework is reliant on “ensuring that there is a qualified workforce readily available.” Supporting teaching professionals to acquire the skills to confidently teach through the medium of Welsh is a key component in developing learners’ Welsh language skills in the English-medium sector.

Along with workforce development, another recent development is the publication of new guidance on school categories according to Welsh-medium provision. This aims to make it clearer for parents and carers what to expect from a school’s provision in terms of the Welsh language. It also seeks to encourage schools to move along a ‘language continuum’, ensuring schools increase and grow their Welsh language provision. The hope is that more schools will become bilingual or Welsh-medium over time.

Welsh Language Education White Paper

The Welsh Government consulted earlier this year on proposals for a Welsh Language Education Bill. This would make the aim of a million Welsh speakers by 2050 a statutory target, and reform the way local authorities develop their Welsh language provision locally.

Central to the proposals is a requirement on the Welsh Ministers to create a statutory National Plan for the acquisition and learning of Welsh. The National Plan would set specific targets for each local authority regarding the percentage of learners taught (fully or partially) through the medium of Welsh. The Welsh Government will need to consider the linguistic demographics of communities as well as socio-economic factors within each authority in setting these targets.

Within this new system, local authorities will be required to prepare Welsh in Education Implementation Plans (WEIPs), which will replace WESPs. These will focus the actions local authorities will need to take in order to achieve the targets set by the Welsh Government. The new plans will continue as 10-year plans, with proposals to review them after five years. Evidence heard during the inquiry strongly advocated closer monitoring and reviewing of progress against local authority plans. This will become increasingly important over time to track progress and failings.

The Committee had recommended the development of a national framework to “ensure a consistent national approach to Welsh language education planning and delivery”. The Committee is also keen to see provisions in the forthcoming legislation that will enable the Welsh Government to “intervene and take action” where local authorities failed to meet their targets. The current framework, according to the Committee, leaves Welsh Ministers “somewhat toothless” in this regard.

So what’s next?

The Welsh Government responded to the Committee on 3 July 2023, accepting 12 of its 18 recommendations in full, two in principle and two in part. It rejected two of the Committee’s recommendations.

The Senedd will debate the Committee’s report on Wednesday 5 July 2023. You can follow this on and read the transcript shortly afterwards.

The First Minister has confirmed the Welsh Language Education Bill will be introduced to the Senedd’s legislative process over the next year.

The Welsh Government describes the Bill as a “significant programme of change”, which has the potential to “transform learners’ linguistic outcomes in our schools”. Time will tell how this will impact on the Cymraeg 2050 trajectory and whether it can help reverse the apparent decline in Welsh language ability indicated by the Census results.

Article by Osian Bowyer and Michael Dauncey, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament