Welsh schools 'play the system' to have easier language exams

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun Dec 4 18:20:29 UTC 2005

Welsh schools 'play the system' with GCSEs Dec 3 2005

Gareth Morgan, Western Mail

SOME schools in Wales are "playing the system" by bending the rules so
they can enter pupils for easier exams, according to an official
investigation. The controversy centres around pupils who are fluent Welsh
speakers and yet are entered for the less-challenging GCSE Welsh exam
which is designed for second-language pupils. And ironically, it is
schools in Welsh-speaking strongholds that are largely to blame for the
trend, the report claims.

Jane Davidson, Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning, this week
agreed that more needed to be done to ensure continuity in Welsh learning.
And critics say there should be a complete rethink about the way Welsh is
treated in schools to instil more confidence in users of the language.
Consultants Llais y Lli have revealed the extent of the problem after
being asked by Accac - the Welsh qualifications, curriculum and assessment
authority - to investigate the number of pupils who moved away from
first-language Welsh to second-language.

Between Key Stage Two and Key Stage Three, as pupils gear up towards their
GCSE courses, there was a drop of more than one fifth of pupils surveyed
from first-language Welsh streams. The Times Educational Supplement Cymru
reported that the consultants surveyed 24,988 pupils who were studying
Welsh as a first language, taking in 72 secondary schools and 153 primary
schools across Wales.

They found that only 19,405 pupils went on to take first-language exams at
Key Stage Three, which is the three-year period for pupils aged 11 to 14,
just before GCSE courses begin. And yet the research also found that in
those bilingual schools where there had been a big shift towards taking
the exams in second-language format, GCSE results were ultimately 20%
higher than the Welsh average. It seems the temptation is for schools and
pupils to gain better results, on paper, by taking the less taxing exams.

Ffred Ffransis, education spokesman for Welsh language group Cymdeithas yr
Iaith Gymraeg, said that the situation was "laughable". "It is a
condemnation not of the pupils, but of the schools that let this sort of
thing happen," he said. "Second-language Welsh exams are just like
learning Welsh through the medium of English as the questions on the paper
are actually in English. " It is not fair, and it is not a good policy for
those who are seriously trying to learn Welsh as a second language."

Gruff Hughes, general secretary of Welsh-medium teaching union UCAC, also
said there should be a change in the way the exams are organised. Ideas
included setting all the papers in Welsh, and for the marks to take into
consideration a candidate's first language. The Llais y Lli report said
that, ironically, it was Welsh-speaking parents who might use the language
at home yet who lacked confidence in their own children's abilities to
excel in the exams.

It also claimed that bullying and peer pressure were major factors in
deciding whether children should be moved to second- language Welsh.
Strongholds like Conwy, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire were all named and
shamed as places where the greatest drop in pupils from the first-language
streams happened. Mr Ffransis added, "It happens in so-called 'natural'
bilingual schools where children could be considered fluent Welsh-speakers
and yet they are perhaps not very confident because they do a lot of other
subjects in English."

The report is being considered by the Welsh Assembly Government,
recommending that it gives schools more guidance and advice on the issue.
Ms Davidson has admitted that it is unfair for fluent Welsh speakers to
take the second-language paper just to gain better results. She said a
"new definition of Welsh-medium education", due to be published this
month, would help to clarify the position.

And inspection body Estyn also said it had noted the problem. A recent
report said, "Too many pupils who have learnt Welsh as their first
language switch to learning Welsh as a second language when they move from
primary school to secondary school." Conwy LEA, one of the areas named in
the report, said it was aware of this pattern and was working closely with
schools. But a spokeswoman added, "Rather than seeing this issue as a
problem, it is more a reflection of parental choice as pupils transfer
from the primary to secondary sector."

And in Carmarthenshire, head of school support Bryan Stephens said, "Our
own analysis of trends confirms the movement between first and
second-language programmes of study from KS2 to KS3. We recognise it as a
concern but it is unfair to suggest that this comes about because schools
'play the system' just to improve results. "The reasons for transfer from
first-language to second-language curriculum are many and varied; they
range from those identified in the report such as parental confidence in
their children's ability in their second language, through peer pressure
to the very existence of two distinct programmes of study, an anomaly in

Ceredigion LEA and ACCAC both said that nobody was available for comment
last night.


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