Education, the decline of Welsh and why communities matter more than classrooms

Why Welsh declined is an emotive topic. For more than a hundred years, some have liked to blame the British state, with the Welsh Not offering an apparently convenient symbol of official attitudes. Others prefer to argue that wider state attitudes deliberately created an atmosphere that encouraged people to turn against their own language. Either explanation frees Wales from responsibility for the decline of Welsh (although the former misunderstands how education actually worked and the latter implies that the Welsh of the past were gullible victims of some wider conspiracy).

What is beyond debate is that the history of the Welsh language in the modern period is one of decline. Probably at least 80 percent of the population spoke Welsh at the start of the nineteenth century and most of them could not speak English. At the 1891 census, the first time anyone counted properly, Welsh was only spoken by half the population, with 30% saying they were unable to speak English (although that figure was thought to be exaggerated because of the way the question was worded and some suspicion whether it could really be that high). By the 2011 census, just 19 percent of the population spoke Welsh and that figure was probably an exaggeration of actual fluency levels. Only in Gwynedd and Anglesey were more than half of people able to speak Welsh.

Education is part of this story but it is only part. If education was decisive to people stopping speaking Welsh, it is hard to explain why there were such large regional variations in language patterns. The central purpose of education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was to teach people English but in rural Wales it often failed. In 1891 in Meirionnydd and Cardiganshire, three quarters of people were returned as only speaking Welsh, despite fifty years of growth in the education system. In 1901, 10% of 15-year-olds in Wales were unable to speak English, despite the fact that school attendance had been compulsory for more than 20 years. In rural districts of Meirionnydd more than half of 10 to 15-years-olds were unable to speak English.

Today, the education system is sometimes condemned for teaching English to the Victorian Welsh. But in that period, people damned it for failing to do so. The reasons given by investigations into education were

  • Too many schools failed to make use of Welsh in the classroom and thus left children floundering to understand lessons given in what was essentially a foreign language.
  • School lessons were not being reinforced by wider culture in communities where Welsh was the language of work, play and prayer and English was very rarely used or even heard.

Thus education did not bring about significant linguistic change in rural communities because it often failed to actually teach people to speak English properly. At schools where teachers refused to use Welsh, children might learn to read and repeat English words but they did not actually know what these words meant because no one ever told them and because they never heard them outside class. 

Moreover, even if education had been better there was little to be gained in Victorian rural communities through abandoning Welsh. The language was spoken everywhere and by nearly everyone. Giving it up would have made no sense. It was both natural and useful, whatever the Blue Books said. 

In contrast, in the industrial south communities were becoming more diverse. By the end of the 19th century, large-scale migration from England was affecting a shift in community languages. English became something that could be learned not just in the classroom but in the workplace, the pub and the street. Surrounded by an increasing number of workmates and neighbours who could not speak Welsh, the dynamics of language were changing from migrants learning Welsh to the existing population learning English.

Contemporaries noted how the key linguistic shift was among the children. They might speak Welsh at home but, in communities full of migrant children unable to speak Welsh, they played and learned in English and thus English came to be their natural tongue for speaking to anyone who was not their parents. They, in turn, raised their own children in English.

Thus demographics were key to why Welsh remained strong in the countryside but was declining in industrial and urban areas. There were, of course, other factors at play. The public rhetoric that Welsh was old fashioned and unsuited to modern life must have had some influence, although this has to be set alongside the very significant status Welsh gained by being a language of religion. English was also the language of a global mass media and popular culture. It was the language of a growing consumer culture and the army. This meant after the First World War, English made significant inroads into rural communities and in industrial communities the linguistic shifts brought about by demographic changes  were reinforced.

It was only once English was well established that some Welsh-speaking parents took the decision to raise their children in English. Here they were influenced by the economic, political and cultural power of English but this trend was concentrated in the areas where English already dominated. Thus in 1926/7, of those children at Anglesey secondary schools who did not speak Welsh at home, only 2% had two Welsh-speaking parents. In Merthyr, 30% of secondary-school pupils who spoke English at home had two Welsh-speaking parents. In wider Glamorgan, the figure was 19%.

It is still instructive that a few families in Welsh-speaking Anglesey were raising their children in English. Yet the 1920s was relatively late and by then better education, military service, the cinema and radio had all boosted people’s ability to speak English.  Before the First World War, it was more common for migrants into rural communities to learn Welsh than it was for locals to drop the language. Census records show how the children of English families who had moved to rural Wales could often speak Welsh. Their parents didn’t speak the language and much of their schooling would have been in English. It was in the community and with their friends that they learned Welsh.

Even in the first couple of decades of the post-1945 period, as the inability to speak English started to disappear, rural Wales remained strongly Welsh speaking, despite the allure of English films, tv and pop songs.

What changed this was not education or the status of languages but English migration. Just as migration from England was decisive to the decline of Welsh in industrial communities, it became decisive in the decline of Welsh in rural communities. Children of migrants might still learn Welsh but they do so most effectively in places where Welsh remains the dominant community language. The number of such places is falling as the demography of rural Wales changes.

What happens in schools only really matters if it is reinforced by what happens outside school. That is why today, decades of Welsh-medium education in English-speaking communities have not changed the language of those communities. It is why some children who learn Welsh lose it in later life. It is why Welsh-medium education for all in rural communities is not enough to buttress Welsh there if the everyday language of those communities is changing through migration from England.

If the Welsh Government wants to reach a million speakers then education alone is not the answer.  Even if this nominal target is reached through a massive expansion of Welsh-medium education, it will not mean there are a million who do speak Welsh, merely a million who can speak Welsh.  The decline of Welsh was rooted not in what happened in classrooms but what happened in communities. The future of Welsh won’t be saved by education either. It relies on ensuring there are still communities where it is natural to  start a conversation with a stranger in Welsh. It relies on people elsewhere having other opportunities to use the Welsh they learned at school. It relies on being a living language outside the classroom.

Indeed, it’s probably better, and certainly more sustainable, to have 500,000 people regularly speaking Welsh in their community than a million able to speak it but rarely doing so.

10 classic novels from the ‘Welsh Century’

Every year on my module The Welsh Century 1847-1947 I encourage students to read fiction from the period. Here are the ones I suggest.

These novels have been selected  because I like them rather than because of any particular literary merit they might have. However, all are vivid illustrations of life during this period, or at least how some people liked to imagine life. Some of the books were published later than the timeframe of the module but they draw on their authors’ own experiences of the period.

  1. Jeremy Brooks, Jampot Smith (1960).

A comic story of teenage English immigrants in Llandudno who are more concerned with girls than the ongoing Second World War. The English middle class may not be a fashionable topic in Welsh history but they are part of the nation’s story.

  1. Islwyn Ffowc Elis, Cysgod y Cryman (1953). Published in English as Shadow of the Sickle

You may want to throttle several of the sanctimonious characters but a great story nonetheless and an important depiction of the tensions within rural Wales just after the Second World War. The book was important in taking Welsh-language novels to a younger audience.

  1. Caradoc Evans, My People (1915)

A collection of short stories that give an unsympathetic view of the people of rural Wales and which made its author rather notorious.  The characters are devious, hypocritical, lustful, greedy and not always very intelligent.  It’s all a little over the top but great fun.

  1. Jack Jones, Rhondda Roundabout (1934)

A disjointed but vivid and entertaining picture of the vitality of life in mining communities. The perfect antidote to any idea of Welsh miners as downtrodden, bored, overly pious or sober.

  1. Lewis Jones, Cwmardy (1937)

Celebrated for its picture of politics and exploitation in the south Wales valleys but it’s ‘Big Jim’ and the other characters that make it such a great read and much more than the Communist propaganda that it was intended as.

  1. Stead Jones, Make Room for the Jester (1964)

Rather obscure and probably the least successful book on the list. But it is full of teenage angst, repressed sexuality and adult alcoholism in 1939 Pwllheli.

  1. Richard Llewellyn, How Green was my Valley (1939)

 Often derided for its Welsh clichés (lots of singing and talking funny) and poor sense of history (the decline of the valleys is all the fault of the unions and immigrants apparently) but it doesn’t deserve to cast aside.  A gripping story, appealing characters and lots of sentimentality made it hugely popular everywhere, including in the south Wales it misrepresents. 

  1. Caradog Pritchard, Un Nos Ola Leuad (1961). Published in English as One Moonlit Night.

Sometimes regarded as the greatest Welsh-language novel ever.  Set in a north Wales quarrying community, it’s more poverty and child abuse than hymns and eisteddfodau.  It’s hard not to be touched by the tragic life of the young narrator. The book dispels the romantic pictures of early twentieth-century Welsh rural society that characterise some autobiographies of Welsh-speaking intellectuals. The book is spoiled only by some surreal passages of biblical visions. 

  1. Kate Roberts, Traed Mewn Cyffion (1936). Published in English as Feet in Chains

Another rather bleak and depressing but vivid depiction of life in a slate quarrying community in early 20th-century Caernarfonshire. Will stop any doubt over which gender had the roughest deal.

  1. Dylan Thomas, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940).

A collection of short stories that show Wales’ most famous writer at his best. Very funny, slightly surreal and often irreverent. A rather different inter-war Wales to the one found in mining novels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I like voting

I like voting. I like the walk to the polling station, even if it’s raining. I like seeing others heading the same way. I like wondering who they’re voting for. I like how serious their faces look. I like the sense of being part of something bigger and something important.

I like the fact that you don’t have to prove who you are. I like the trust it signifies and what that suggests about our society. As my name is crossed off, I like sneaking a look at the list to see if next door has voted yet.

I like the booth and the stubby pencil. I like the list of candidates and wondering why some of them bothered to stand but not send me a leaflet. I like the moment of hesitation when I wonder if I really want to vote for the party that I decided weeks ago to support. I like remembering that in 1997 I changed my mind in the booth itself. I like worrying whether I have put the cross in the wrong box and then double checking and triple checking. I like folding the piece of paper and putting it in the box. I like the ritual and the simplicity of it all. I like the hope that it might lead to something better.

I don’t like the electoral system. I don’t like that my vote won’t make much difference because of the constituency I live in. I often don’t like the choices others make and the overall result. But I hope I respect their decisions, even if it doesn’t feel like that in the early hours of the morning, watching the results come in and feeling the hope drain away.

But, still, I like the fact that I get to vote at all. And I like to think that I’ll never take it for granted. I like to think that I’ll always remember that voting is our right but also a privilege to treasure.

Race, National Identity, and Responses to Muhammad Ali in 1960s Britain

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I have just published a new article looking at how ideas of race and national identity framed British reactions to Muhammad Ali in the 1960s. You can download a version of the article here.

Muhammad Ali fought in the UK three times in the 1960s, each time to the accompaniment of significant media coverage that made him into a public figure. On his first fight in 1963, his unusual personality both delighted and reviled. Many of the criticisms were rooted in a dislike of American culture but beneath them were also racial stereotypes that encouraged a view of him as brash and immature. By his second and third fights in 1966, he was a deeply controversial figure in the USA because of his conversion to Islam and opposition to the Vietnam War. Yet neither issue had the same significance in the UK and his British fan base grew, despite the way he also reminded some of the danger that British racial tensions might escalate in the way they had in America. Ali was also an inspiration to Britons of colour and those who believed in the need for radical challenges to the world’s problems. As such, he is an example of how ideas, fears and hopes around race relations were transnational and the need for its British historians to ensure their accounts are de-domesticised.

For those with institutional access, the published version of the article can be accessed here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09523367.2019.1679775 

 

Jack Leslie: The man who should have been England’s first black international footballer

By Martin Johnes (Swansea University) and Alex Jackson (National Football Museum)

In 1978 Viv Anderson became the first black player to represent England at football. But 53 years earlier, another black player had been selected for England. Jack Leslie of Plymouth Argyle, however, never joined up with the squad. The FA claimed at the time that he had never been picked and that the press reports of his inclusion were a mistake. Leslie himself claimed years later that he had been dropped because of the colour of his skin.

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Born in 1901, Jack Leslie was the son of a gas fitters’ labourer, who was from Jamaica, and a tailoress from Islington. He grew up in Canning Town in London and went onto become a very successful inside left with Plymouth Argyle from 1921 to 1935, scoring 137 goals in 401 appearances in the third and second divisions. In 1930 The Football Herald claimed he was ‘known throughout England for his skill and complexion’, while in 1932 the Daily Mail called him a ‘coloured genius’.

At the time, he was one of only two black players who were regulars in the Football League, the other being Eddie Parris who played for Bradford Park Avenue, Bournemouth, Luton and Northampton. Parris won a single cap for Wales. His international cap came at a time when Wales were desperate for players. He did not have a good game and was never selected again.

Dusky Leslie SPorts Budget 13 March 1925

How much racism Parris and Leslie faced in the game is unclear. Both were regularly described in the press as ‘coloured’ but not by their local newspapers and research has not uncovered any reports of crowd abuse towards them. But newspapers might easily have wanted to ignore anything uncomfortable and, in a society where there were deeply-held feelings of white superiority, it is unlikely that the two never faced racism from crowds. Indeed, as the above 1925 cartoon suggests, questions of race seemed to make white society uncomfortable and it was easier to ignore it or turn it into a joke than to discuss its meanings.

Both players were, however, popular with their own fans. This owed much to their skills and goals but was perhaps rooted in the fact that their colour made them different. In many ways, they were probably curiosities and they were sometimes referred to as notable personalities in the game.

In 1978, when Anderson was selected for England, a Daily Mail reporter interviewed Leslie. By then, he was working as a bootman for West Ham. Leslie told the reporter how the Plymouth manager had called him into his office, put his arm on his shoulder and said ‘I’ve got great news for you. You’ve been picked for England’. Leslie recalled this knocked him ‘sideways’. He went on:

Everybody in the club knew about it. The town was full of it. All them days ago it was quite a thing for a little club like Plymouth to have a man called up for England. I was proud – but then I was proud just to be a paid footballer.

Then all of a sudden everyone stopped talking about it. Sort of went dead quiet. Didn’t look me in the eye. Then the papers came out a day or so later and Billy Walker of Aston Villa was in the team, not me. I didn’t ask outright. I could see by their faces it was awkward.

But I did hear, roundabout like, that the FA had come to have another look at me. Not at me football but at me face. They asked, and found they’d made a ricket. Found out about me daddy, and that was it.

There was a bit of an uproar in the papers. Folks in the town were very upset. No one ever told me official like but that had to be the reason, me mum was English but me daddy was black as the Ace of Spades. There wasn’t any other reason for taking my cap away.

Leslie’s selection was indeed announced in the press but as a reserve rather than as a first-team player. After the press announcement, the story did disappear and Leslie never joined up with the team. Leslie does not feature in the team recorded in the FA’s selection committee minutes, although these were drawn up later and could have been altered.

England teams were picked by a selection committee of fourteen administrators who voted on the team, showing little consistency but much experimentation and confusion and a desire to ensure teams were not overly dominated by professionals. In 1930, the Athletic News noted that in the eleven seasons after the Great War 145 players were chosen by England and that 66 were yet to win a second cap.

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Leslie listed in the England team. Nottingham Journal 6 October 1925.

The selectors were thus picking large numbers of players who they appeared to know little about and it is not impossible that Leslie was chosen without any knowledge of his colour.  Leslie was playing in the third division (south) and would not have been very well known. One paper regarded his selection as a ‘surprise’, while another called the whole team ‘experimental’.

There does not seem to be any evidence of an uproar in the press when Leslie did not join up with the team but the Daily Herald did seek further information about what had happened. It was informed by the FA that Leslie had never been selected. Yet the Press Association told the paper that its announcement of his selection had come from the Football Association.

The Plymouth press had initially welcomed his selection but then dropped the story.  One local reporter did, however, write:

My readers may be expecting from me a comment upon the Argyle Club’s announcement that Jack Leslie was not chosen as reserve forward for England. Unfortunately my pen is under a ban in this matter: but I may say that a mistake was made in London and transmitted to me. Anyway, Leslie was at that time playing quite well enough to be chosen.

Clearly some people at the time felt something untoward had occurred. Yet it is notable that nowhere in the discussion was his colour mentioned. The selection of a black man had not been not the cause of celebration or even comment. If it was then thought that he had been deselected because of his colour, as Leslie believed, then this was not a matter for public discussion either.

In later years, he was occasionally touted as a potential international but was nothing happened. In 1933, one national newspaper said of Leslie, ‘Had he been white he would have been a certain English international.’ It made no further comment. Racial discrimination was perhaps simply a matter of fact.

This article derives from a forthcoming study Martin Johnes has written on Eddie Parris and race in interwar British football. Martin also has forthcoming articles on race in post-1945 British boxing.  Credit is due to Phil Vasili, the pioneering historian of black footballers. Further details of Leslie’s career can be found in Ryan Danes’ Plymouth Argyle: The Complete Record (2014).

Plymouth Argyle 1926. Leslie is second from the left.

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Emotions, the Welsh Not and getting to know a Victorian headmaster.

As part of a project looking at the suppression of the Welsh language in 19th century schools, I have spent some time this week reading the logbooks of elementary schools. These were diary-like records of school life that headmasters were required by law to keep after the 1870 Education Act.

Given there were hundreds of schools in Wales, knowing where to start is a daunting task. Ideally, I would like to read every one and come up with stats that quantified the different approaches to the Welsh language. That would be a huge task and one where the outcome would not be worth the effort since most don’t actually seem to make many references to Welsh at all.

Thus I’m being very selective in which ones I look at. This morning I concentrated on a school in the Gwaun valley in Pembrokeshire. This was because I had come across a 1920s letter to a newspaper from a man who recalled the Welsh Not being used there when he was a pupil in the 1880s.

Given the school’s single teacher, one Mr Llewellyn, was a man who apparently punished his pupils for speaking Welsh, I began reading with a disapproval of him. Maybe the historian should not start with a sense of judgement about the people being studied but I think that’s impossible. We certainly have to be careful of judging the past through modern values but this just means remembering the judgments being made and thinking about how that affects interpretations.

In this case, I did not feel too bad about expecting to dislike Mr Llewellyn because the Welsh Not was unusual by the 1880s. Most of education seems to have moved on by then and Mr Llewellyn was behind the times.

Unfortunately, the log book made no reference to the Welsh Not at all or indeed give any clue that his pupils did not speak English when they started school. Instead, the section from the 1880s was one sustained weather record and a repeated moan about very poor attendance and the impact of this on school learning.

At first, this was not very informative but gradually a picture of rural school life emerges. And the more I read, the more I began to feel sorry for the poor teacher.  He despairs about how he can teach when half the school are regularly absent. Rain, snow and heat all keep children at home because many had to walk some miles to get there. So, too, does hay making, crop sowing and harvesting, local fairs and chapel meetings.  Some children go three or four months without turning up. Many simply say when they do eventually attend that they were needed at home.

The inspection reports the school received were scathing and a copy of each one was handwritten into the logbook by Llewellyn.  This in itself cannot have been a pleasant task. They question his physical ability to run a school alone. At first, I thought this meant more staff were needed but the second reference to this implies that he is not fit or healthy enough. I picture an ill man. The reports also question why some pupils are not there on inspection day, implying that they are being kept away so as not to affect the exam results. Arithmetic and sewing are  the only subjects that seem ok, perhaps because they did not require English-language skills.

The School Board comes in for criticism too. More needs to be done about absenteeism and Llewellyn needs an assistant. There are no inkwells. The poor reports lead to cuts in the school’s government grant. I magine a frosty relationship between Llewellyn and the board that empoys him. Llewellyn records at one point: “The teacher is altogether blamed when an unfavourable report is given at the annual inspection of the school”.

Eventually one Summer holiday he resigns. Perhaps he had no choice. But after ploughing my way through 150 pages or so of his handwritten laments, I feel rather sorry for him and have forgotten how he used the Welsh Not. Maybe the picture in my head of a bent, elderly and frustrated teacher working to the ends of his wits is wrong. Maybe he took out his frustrations on the children and was vicious and bad tempered with them. The possibility of my sense of him being wrong is why the sympathy I developed should not shape the analysis. But it did shape my emotional experience of doing the research.

Whatever the poor standard of education in the school or the evils of the Welsh Not, forty years later one of his pupils exhibits no anger in recounting that this small peice of wood was ‘considered one of the most serious sections of the day’s curriculum’. Indeed, he relates the story of a farm boy turning up late to school and explaining to the others “Our donkey had a small donkey”. He was asked when but confused this for the Welsh word for white (wen) and replies “Nage, un ddu” (No, a black one). For this, he was presented with the Welsh Not. The letter does not record what the punishment was.

Such humorous stories of confusion were not uncommon in recollections of the Welsh Not. Like the experience of archival research, they are a reminder that emotions are not always what we might expect. People, after all, are complicated and little in the past is straightforward. Decent people can still do bad things. People who have bad things done to them can still laugh. And the historian can feel for them both, without losing the objectivity needed for analysis.

 

 

“God Bless the Prince of Wales”

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I recently presented a programme called “God Bless the Prince of Wales” for Radio 4. It looked at the 1969 investiture of Prince Charles and the rise and relevance of Welsh nationalism. It was part of the Archive on Four series and drew upon a range of archival sound recordings.

A central theme of the programme was the idea of the stories we tell about ourselves. It looked at  the flooding of Tryweryn, its influence on 1969 and how the memory of that event is still central to ideas of Welsh nationalism. History, no matter how selective, is central to understandings of the present. Where people want Wales to go draws upon their ideas of where it has been.

The Daily Telegraph had a nice review of the programme. It argued: “The story gave weight to injustices against Wales, but was balanced in considering wider political problems that Wales faced. It was vibrant and carefully told. … Brexit and Scottish independence currently dominate the conversation about national identity, but this programme gave space to Wales’s story. It was an important piece of social history that showed how rich, complicated and fragile being British really is, for all of us.”

The genesis of the Millennium Stadium

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Photo via <a href=”https://www.goodfreephotos.com/”>Good Free Photos</a>

By the 1990s South Glamorgan County Council (SGCC) wanted to turn Cardiff into a European city of the stature of Cologne, Copenhagen, Seville or Barcelona through a long-term strategy known as Euro-Capital 2020.  The aspiration was to develop Cardiff into a city that could compete for investment on a European platform by raising its international profile and creating a quality of life comparable with Europe’s most desirable cities. The policy was an attempt to embrace the move towards a single European market, to be prepared for the possible advent of devolution under a future Labour government, and to encourage the people of South Glamorgan to share in the vision.

Becoming a city of European worth meant developing the cultural, environmental and physical characteristics of continental cities.  A first step was the redevelopment of Mill Lane, a downmarket street at the bottom of the central shopping district.  Although Wales does not enjoy the same weather conditions as southern Europe, the street was transformed, with SGCC’s aid, into a café quarter, complete with fashionable restaurants and pavement tables.  This was a popular and commercially-successfully project, but it was far too small to promote Cardiff into the European league of capitals.  Instead, the central tenet of the 2020 project became the Millennium stadium. This was a project whose genesis owed more to external factors that the European capital vision, but it did give Cardiff a facility of true world-class quality.

In 1992 Barcelona hosted the Olympics and the event was perceived to have been central to the city’s successful regeneration. It became something of an inspiration to Cardiff and other cities across Europe and longterm ideas of sport as a major driver of urban renewal began to seem more concrete. Cardiff had already unsuccessfully bid to host the 1986 Commonwealth games.  Although the near-corrupt practices of that process had disillusioned South Glamorgan County Council, sport remained in the council’s thinking as it looked to promote Cardiff as a vibrant capital city of European status.

The initial impetus for a new stadium came from the Welsh Rugby Union’s plans to bid to host the 1999 rugby world cup.  The SGCC leadership supported the planned bid, not only because its leader Russell Goodway was a rugby fan, but also because such an event offered an opportunity to promote Cardiff on the world stage.  Yet the WRU also had plans for a new stadium in Bridgend. This would have undermined the benefits for Cardiff of both a world cup and rugby internationals more generally. The council thus suggested taking the idea forward by building a brand new state-of the-art stadium on the site of Cardiff Arms Park with funding from the lottery’s Millennium Commission.  This idea was an opportunity to ensure that, in the economic and environmental modernisation of Cardiff, the centre was not left behind the fast changing Bay.

It was also an idea that was very firmly rooted in political opportunism.  In Cardiff Bay, there were ongoing plans to build an opera house that were running into controversy, not least over design and match funding, in the quest for support from the Millennium Commission.  With a public outcry over the spiralling cost of the Covent Garden opera house in London, the government was reluctant to see another costly, high-culture project given a large sum of public cash.  In contrast, a new stadium was clearly populist, and offered the government a way of rejecting the Cardiff opera house bid without being seen to snub Wales or its capital.

The sceptical WRU was won over to the cause of a new stadium but its first, rather thrown together, bid for lottery funding from the Millennium Commission failed.  This led SGCC to essentially take over, preparing a successful second bid.  Securing the money became something of a personal priority for Goodway and considerable SGCC time and resources were pumped into the project.  The WRU has since been given much of the credit for the stadium but initially it seemed rather conservative in both its ambitions and plans.  Individuals within SGCC were instrumental in persuading the WRU of the need for a retractable roof and removable pitch, both of which were crucial to making the stadium financially viable by diversifying its possible uses.

The economic hope placed in the new stadium was considerable.  Goodway claimed it could ‘be the engine house of prosperity for the next 50 years, attracting investment and tens of thousands of visitors to Cardiff and Wales, helping regenerate large areas of the heart of the Welsh capital.’  By being a national stadium, its importance and significance stretched beyond South Glamorgan and into Wales as a whole.  Here was Cardiff acting as a capital by providing the rest of the nation with a landmark building, that was not only economically important but that could also act as a focal point for Welsh patriotism.

Given the importance of sport in Welsh national identity, the impact of the stadium here should not be underestimated.  It was envisaged that it would be a symbol of hope, progress and pride for Cardiff and Wales. Implicit in this was the modernity of the project.  The stadium’s marketing made clear how it was one of the finest stadiums in the world, whilst in its retractable roof, it had a feature that was hi-tech, progressive and (in Europe) unique.  Even the stadium’s very name suggested something for the future (although this was coincidental since it was rooted in the stadium’s primary funders).  Thus it was hoped that the stadium would be far more than just a contributor to the economic well being of Cardiff, South Glamorgan and Wales; it was intended as a symbol of what sort of places they were, or at least wanted to be.

In many ways, the stadium has become one of the few genuine success stories in the recent history of Wales. It is also a sign that local governments can make a difference.

The stories that bind us: history and the new curriculum

This weekend I attended an excellent event put on by the Cardiff Story museum about the 1919 race riots. The speakers included artists and activists from the Butetown community that was the victim of the 1919 racist attacks. There was a clear desire among both speakers and the audience that the riots be remembered and that the community be allowed to tell its own history.

Theatre events, poetry and art are allowing the riots to be remembered now, but ensuring the memory lives on beyond its centenary is less straightforward. There was  a clear ambition voiced at the event to see the riots, and black history more generally, placed on the Welsh national curriculum.

The national curriculum in Wales is currently undergoing a radical redesign but it will be based around specific skills rather than specific knowledge. Thus in history there will be no requirement that any particular event or person is taught. Similarly, in English and Welsh literature, there will be no poet or novelist who is required reading.

Teachers and schools already have some choice about what they teach but now they will be given free rein to use whatever content they like to meet the curriculum’s overall requirements of ensuring pupils are

  • informed citizens of Wales and the world
  • ambitious and capable learners
  • enterprising and creative contributors to society
  • healthy and confident individuals.

The curriculum also requires that the Welsh context in which pupils live should be central to all these ambitions.

Teaching pupils about the race riots of 1919 would certainly fit with the curriculum’s ambitions and there would be nothing to stop schools using it as a way of both teaching about the past and encouraging thinking about the dynamics of race today. However, the new curriculum will not allow this to be a requirement. If it happens, it will have to be the choice of individual teachers and schools.

As someone in the audience at the 1919 event stated, this means that there is no guarantee that children will learn about the riots and the racism they involved. It may be, it was suggested, that some white teachers will not see ensuring such things are taught as important.

The same fears exist among those who want every child to learn about other specific events that are central to the history of Wales. There is no guarantee that any pupil will learn about medieval conquest, the flooding of Tryweryn, the Second World War, the struggles for civil rights, or the rise of democracy.  Some children will learn about all these things but future citizens’ knowledge of history could vary significantly according to which school they attend.

This has implications for the very nature of Welsh society. The curriculum is intended to foster a sense of Welsh citizenship and to put that in a global context. The question is whether that can be achieved when every child is learning about Wales through different sets of knowledge.

Wales is a diverse place and Welshness means many different things. A curriculum that reflects this, and a nation that is comfortable with a plurality of knowledge, is a mature one. A curriculum that demands every child learn the same ‘national story’ is perhaps something that only a country unsure of itself would produce. Such a story would also inevitably lead to considerable controversy about what it should include. And that is before any consideration of how events should be interpreted.

No historian would argue that there is a single simple Welsh story that could be taught. The past is both vast and complex. Deciding what matters is a political decision. So, too, is explaining why something matters. Giving power to schools and teachers does not overcome that but it does at least free the curriculum from the kind of government interference Michael Gove tried to enact in England in 2013 with his plans for a revised patriotic history curriculum.

Yet teachers are political too, and they do not operate in value-free environments. Their own interests and experiences will influence what they decide to teach. They will, inevitably, reproduce some of the existing outlooks instilled in them by their own education.

Thus those who hope the new curriculum will lead to a flourishing of Welsh history may find it doesn’t because of the existing lack of Welsh history taught in schools and universities. Those who hope it will lead to more teaching about the diversity of Wales may find it does not because that diversity is so often invisible in existing practices. Where teachers come from, where they go to university and who they are will have profound influences on the evolution of the new curriculum.

The freedom the curriculum gives teachers is both its strength and its weakness. It should allow teachers to tell the stories of their own communities and to give them and their pupils a sense of ownership over those histories. It is certainly a recognition of teachers’ professional standing and experience. It should give them the opportunity to innovate and develop exciting programmes that inspire our children.

But it will also be up against the challenges of time and resource that teachers face. It will be up against the real socio-economic inequalities which exist and which challenge teachers in their daily working lives. It will be easier to develop innovative curricula in schools where teachers are not dealing with the extra demands of kids who have missed breakfast or who have difficult home lives. The very real danger of the new curriculum is that it will exacerbate the already significant difference between schools in affluent areas and schools that are not.

The age of devolution has seen too many excellent policies flounder because of how they were (or were not) implemented. There will be an onus on government to ensure that schools are not cast adrift and left to work out things for themselves.  They need support and, I suspect, a whole host of exemplar programmes to show the curriculum can work in practice. If those exemplars are of high enough quality, schools will adopt them. It is through such exemplars and resources that there is the best opportunity to ensure the important themes and events in our history are taught in our schools.

In Game of Thrones, Tyrion Lannister claims that it is stories that bind people together. He is right. History’s stories can inspire, empower, liberate and unite us. It is not necessary that everyone knows all the stories. It will be impossible to agree which stories matter most and how they should be taught. There is nothing wrong with empowering the storytellers to make those decisions. This makes political and pedagogical sense.

But I also cannot help worrying that the new curriculum might further fragment society.  Despite my belief that all histories are equally valid, I cannot escape a nagging doubt that it would be wrong if children did not what know the basics of what happened in the Second World War or that people of colour have a long and rich history in Wales. 1919 is a reminder of what can happen when societies are not bound together. It should not be forgotten.