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Tuesday, August 31, 1999 Published at 16:46 GMT 17:46 UK

UK: Wales

Welsh becomes a must for schoolchildren

Welsh is now compulsory up to age 16

From Wednesday, the teaching of Welsh becomes compulsory up to the age of 16 for all schoolchildren in Wales.

The move is another landmark in the resurgence of the Welsh language, which is spoken by more than half a million people in Wales.

The last census, taken in 1991, showed that nearly 19% of the population were able to speak the language. The total number of Welsh speakers, 508,000, was an increase on the figures for 1981.

It was the first such increase after decades of more or less steady decline, a situation which had caused concern as to whether the language would survive.

[ image: The National Assembly oversees Welsh education policy]
The National Assembly oversees Welsh education policy
The Welsh Language Board, the official body whose task is to promote the language, said the number of Welsh speakers would now almost certainly have increased since 1991, mainly due to education policies.

Official policy towards the language during the century has become increasingly favourable.

Historically, Welsh had been largely discouraged within the education system in Wales. However, pressure from some educationalists and from sections of the general public throughout the century gradually brought about a change in attitudes.

The first officially designated Welsh-medium schools were set up in the wake of the Second World War.

By today, around 27% of primary schools use Welsh as their sole or main means of instruction, and 22% of secondary schools teach Welsh as both a first and second language. Of those secondaries, 50 teach more than half of their foundation subjects through Welsh.

Welsh-medium sector grows

The number of pupils in Welsh-medium education has been steadily growing, and the Welsh-medium education sector is not merely confined to those areas of Wales - mainly the north and west - where Welsh is the majority language of the community.

Increasingly, large numbers of parents who are themselves unable to speak the language have opted for their children to be educated in Welsh. In Cardiff alone, there are 10 Welsh-medium primaries and two secondaries.

The revival of the language has been bolstered by the fact that it has been made a compulsory subject in English-medium schools. Other factors have also helped, such as the establishment of a Welsh television station in 1983 and the passing of the 1993 Welsh Language Act giving Welsh equal official status with English.

However, the process has not been without controversy. Some schools in areas of Wales where little Welsh was spoken were granted exemption from compulsory Welsh until 1999.

[ image: Rod Richards: Changed his mind on language option]
Rod Richards: Changed his mind on language option
And earlier this year, the Conservatives sparked a row when their leader in Wales at the time, Rod Richards, himself a Welsh speaker, denounced the policy of compulsory Welsh which he had earlier supported when he was a Welsh Office minister.

He said he had changed his mind and now thought that making the subject compulsory was counter-productive.

Supporters of the policy, however, say that all the children of Wales should have the opportunity of learning the language, and that it is increasingly important as Wales becomes more and more a bilingual country.

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