Sunday, 15 November 2020

Teaching Welsh in England

I recall noting at the time that legislation was introduced by the Cameron government for free schools in England but not mirrored in Wales that there was potential for the peculiar situation of a new school being set up just on the English side of the border to provide a Welsh medium education. After all Welsh-medium education is popular among Welsh parents and provision close to the border has not always been sufficient. If Welsh Government wouldn't allow the establishment of a new school, those keen could do so in England. Of course, I referenced this at the time more because I thought Wales would gain from following the free school initiative than really expecting Ysgol Gymraeg Henffordd or alike to be established. I mention this recollection today as preamble because once again I want to talk about use of the Welsh language in the English school system but this time my proposal is rather different.

The profile around Welsh independence has grown in recent years. I remain sceptical as to how much this is really a significant increase in the number of supporters as opposed to the level of volume from those who've long been separatists and the conversion of a few key media figures to amplify their cause. At the same time, much of that which seems to be fuelling the arguments for Wales to leave the union is rooted in very immediate politics which suggests we could be at a peak rather than a growing foundation of interest in nationalism. Nonetheless, there are factors which should cause concern for those of us who believe in the continued successful unity of this island. The potential for division is not simply a matter of Welsh self-determination but relies on a continued interest from Scotland and England in maintaining the union. 

The most immediate threat to this would look to be from Scotland where the SNP continue to poll strongly and support for independence appears to have grown from the 2014 "once in a generation" referendum. A renewed SNP majority in May would surely bring urgency to the persistent calls for another referendum from the Scottish Government. The UK Government could not really deny such a request, as to do so simply plays into the nationalist's grievance narrative furthering the wedge of national identity politics. There could be some wrangling over the timing of such a referendum. I'd imagine the SNP would seek a quick vote to maintain their momentum following an election win. The longer the difficulties between the UK and EU over the terms of its relationship, the less appealing it will be for people to want to go through untangling a far deeper relationship between Scotland and England. If Scotland left the union then it is entirely understandable that questions would be asked of Wales' place in the partnership. However, there is also something demonstrably non-independent about the idea that Wales' future would be determined by Scottish voters.

Another threat to the union lies in England. There are those who are enthusiastic about English self-governance, but it is far from a mass movement. The real problem is ambivalence to the Union. This can be easily stoked by populist arguments about financial transfers (which apply to all but three regions of England too) and misconstruing the views of Scottish and Welsh nationalists as the views of the populations of each country. Those of us in Wales who are keen that Bristol and Chester should not become foreign to us, need the people of England to also demonstrate an interest in continued unity with Newport and Wrexham.

However, I think there might be a further more ingrained problem with English attitudes to the union. In the Welsh education system we learn about both Welsh and British history and institutions. I doubt that the English education system spends as much time considering Welsh history and the nature of our devolved form of government or broader culture. As a result, it is easy for Welsh history and institutions to appear foreign to English people. If the UK Government are serious in their commitment to the union, then they should ensure that Wales and Scotland feature prominently on the English curriculum. I would suggest that this could even extend to some teaching of basic Welsh language skills. I would not propose this be subject to examination but would form part of a broad base understanding of Welsh culture which is integral to a broader perspective of what constitutes Great Britain. This will help engender a better understanding of the variety and richness of culture on this island.