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Contemporary Wales
Contemporary Wales

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6.2.2 The Welsh language and Welsh institutions

As we think about the activities and accomplishments of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg and other language campaigners over the past decades, we can see that the language played a much more extensive role in the nationalist movement than simply as an inspiration for activists, important as this may be. The Welsh language provided an officially sanctioned recognition of Welsh distinctiveness for the first time since the sixteenth century. Furthermore, it became one basis for creating an institutional infrastructure within Wales, again something that had not existed for centuries.

One area in which the language was particularly useful in stimulating the development of distinctive Welsh institutions was education. In the years immediately after the Second World War, parents in several areas in Wales began to pressurise local authorities to set up Welsh-medium primary schools. Initially, these schools were intended to provide for children from Welsh-speaking homes in areas of Wales where the predominant language was English. However, comparatively quickly, parents who did not speak Welsh began to request that their children also be admitted to these Welsh-medium schools. Thus, although at first led by a Welsh-speaking, middle class, the movement soon drew support from non-Welsh-speaking and working-class parents. They were attracted by the demonstrated educational successes of the schools, the opportunity to restore to their children the Welsh linguistic heritage of which they felt deprived, and, from the 1980s, the lure of high-status jobs with a Welsh-language requirement in the media and in the constantly expanding government bureaucracy in and around the Welsh Office.

By the early 1980s, many Welsh-medium schools had a majority of pupils from non-Welsh-speaking homes, and the class composition of the intake was representative of the areas in which the schools were located. In 2012, 33 per cent of maintained primary schools in Wales used Welsh as the main medium of instruction, and about 40 per cent of all pupils were fluent in Welsh at age 15. Since over one third of all children who were Welsh speaking came from homes where neither parent spoke Welsh, primary schools have played a major role in maintaining the Welsh language (Welsh Language Board, 1999, p. 2). Census figures for percentages of Welsh speakers in different age groups over the second half of the twentieth century show this clearly.

Activity 17

Figure 12 shows the percentage of Welsh speakers in different age groups from 1951 to 2011. If you look at age group 65+, you will see that the percentage of Welsh speakers has declined steadily from over 40 per cent in 1951 to under 20 per cent in 2011. Now look at each of the other age groups. For which groups has the decline been arrested? For each of these groups, when did the change to increasing percentages occur?

Figure 12 Percentage of Welsh population able to speak Welsh in different age groups, 1951 to 2011


The three youngest age groups first showed increases over the previous census figure in 1981, the 15–24 age group in 1991, and the percentage of Welsh speakers in the 25–44 age group increased for the first time in 2001 (from 14.5 per cent to 15.1 per cent). The timing of these increases across age groups suggests that the development of Welsh-medium education over the past half century has changed the demographic profile of the Welsh language, from being concentrated among older age groups to experiencing most growth among younger age groups.

The Welsh Office was given control over primary and secondary education in Wales in 1970, and this enabled the growth of a professional elite of Welsh educationalists. Thus, when the Education Reform Act 1988 was introduced, this Welsh educational infrastructure exerted considerable influence on the new national curriculum being created by the Act. The strongest argument for special treatment for Wales under the Act was the special circumstances of Welsh-medium schools. However, Welsh educationalists had a broader remit than the Welsh-medium sector, and they secured a Welsh dimension to the curriculum in the form of two requirements unique to Wales – the Curriculum Cymreig (Welsh Curriculum), designed to incorporate teaching about the culture of Wales throughout the curriculum; and the study of Welsh as a first or second language in all schools in Wales. Looking again at Figure 12, you can observe the particularly large increases between 1991 and 2011 for groups containing individuals of school age (5–15). This is very likely an effect of ‘the place given to Welsh in the National Curriculum, especially as a foundation subject in English-medium schools’ (Welsh Language Board, 2003, p. 2).