Welsh history in Welsh schools before the National Curriculum

An extract from Martin Johnes, ‘History and the Making and Remaking of Wales’, History, 100, 343 (2015), 667-84. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-229X.12141 

Nationalists were prone to blame the education system for the apathy of many Welsh people to their cause.  In their view, education had been a tool of a foreign state, designed to destroy Welsh culture.  They dated this back to the 1847 Blue Books, an education report that claimed that the Welsh language was uncivilized and holding Wales back.  However, such views were not entirely fair given how decentralized education in England and Wales was before the Second World War.  With teachers fairly free to teach what they liked, a patriotic master could easily pass on his or her enthusiasm for Welsh history.

Moreover, there were a number of very popular and very patriotic school texts on Welsh history for them to draw upon. Even in Anglicized Cardiff, the School Board explicitly saw teaching Welsh history as a way of making ‘all the inhabitants of Wales loyal to Wales’.  Dannie Abse, born in 1923, remembered:

At my elementary school in Cardiff I was taught to sing Welsh songs and revere Welsh heroes.  I see myself now, ten years old, sitting at a desk listening to our teacher Mr Williams: ‘The grave of our own Owain Glyndwr, princely Owain, who took up his sword in defence of justice and liberty, is not one visible, boys, but it’s known.  Known. Oh aye, you’ll not find it in any old churchyard, no old tomb of his under the shadow of a yew.  No stone tablet do bear his name. So where is it? I’ll tell you where it is – in the heart and in the noble soul of every true Cymro.

This was a reference to a passage from Owen Rhoscomyl’s Flame Bearers of Welsh History (1905). Rhoscomyl was perhaps the most over the top of writers of such texts but more sober books shared that ability to explicitly draw connections between past and present.  G. P. Ambrose’s The History of Wales (1947), for example, finished by declaring ‘The survival of her national life through the crises of centuries is due to efforts of her best men and women to cherish a worthy heritage. Only by similar efforts will this be preserved in the future.’

Such lessons were not always popular and the existence of patriotic textbooks is no guide to how widely they were used.  One Wrexham man remembered being ‘force-fed’ Welsh history at his grammar school in the late 1940s and early 1950s: ‘it had seemed so impossible to disentangle, so difficult to absorb, what with all those names of squabbling Welsh princes, long-vanished principalities, and odd cantrefs’.   In 1952, the Welsh department of the Ministry of Education issued a report which argued that in secondary schools ‘Too frequently … the history of Wales is relegated to the background, and local history, if it is included at all, is treated cursorily and inadequately.’  It thus called for ‘radical revision’, suggesting:

a knowledge of the history of Wales is the birthright of the children of Wales… the future of the nation – of the community inhabiting the country, both those who speak Welsh and those who do not – depends to no small degree upon the extent to which the children are rooted in their native soil and are made aware of their national heritage.

 Although knowing exactly how history was taught and what influence it had is impossible, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the lack of Welsh history in schools contributed to the weaknesses in Welsh identity at the start of the post-war period.

In response to the 1952 report, and allied to the slow strengthening of Welsh identity in general, the teaching of Welsh history did grow in the 1950s and 60s.  The editorial of the first ever issue of the Welsh History Review noted in 1960 that Welsh history was ‘given considerable attention’ in A Level work in grammar schools. In Flintshire, the Director of Education was very forthright in promoting Welsh history.  He told The Observer in 1959: ‘I don’t see any merit at all in the kings and queens of England.’  But his policy was subject to criticism and he claimed ‘They fear that you are creating in the mind of a child an awareness that there is such a concept as the Welsh nation.’

Thus the teaching of Welsh history remained limited and in 1967 another report on primary education found that teachers often disregarded it in favour of English history. Yet, the hopes that history that could inspire the young remained explicit in the new books being written to support Welsh history.  Children who read a 1960 secondary-schools textbook were told: ‘if Welsh culture is to perish, it will be through the apathy and indifference of her own people.  But the future is big with possibilities provided there is the will to maintain and to further all that is best in Welsh national life.’

Welsh history in schools was also boosted by its growth in universities from the 1960s onwards. This produced a new generation of teachers better able and more likely to go on to teach Welsh history.  The growth was slow and incremental and an Anglo-centric form of British history still dominated.  By the 1980s, Welsh history was still unusual in primary schools, while at secondary level it could be avoided altogether in O Level history.  There was a compulsory Welsh question on the Welsh Joint Education Committee’s British history course, but this was sometimes badly taught and reliant on 1950s textbooks.

Nor had the critics disappeared.  In 1984, one Cardiff teacher complained those against ‘compulsory Welsh History are anti-Welsh, anglicised rascals’.  Criticism was not surprising given that the increasingly vocal supporters of Welsh history in schools consciously saw it as having a utilitarian purpose.  In 1984, the educationalist David Egan wrote, ‘For too long Welsh history in our schools has hidden in the shadows. It is now emerging but somewhat pale from lack of light.  If it finds the place in the sun it deserves, the whole future of Welsh consciousness and nationality is likely to be radically affected.’

That place in the sun was realised with the new national curriculum that was established for all subjects in England and Wales.  Thanks to lobbying from teachers and others, history was the only subject (apart from Welsh) with a separate committee to advise the Welsh Office on curriculum content and its recommendations led to Welsh history becoming a core subject for both primary and secondary children. Although it placed Wales firmly within an international context, the new curriculum was designed to foster a sense of a distinct Welsh past which was connected to the present. They were perhaps pushing at something of an open door because in England too there were intentions to use history to develop a sense of citizenship. Although there was some criticism that it was nostalgic and the medieval conquest of Wales was notable for its absence, unlike in England, this utilization of Welsh history for citizenship was uncontroversial. This in itself was a marker of how far Welsh identity had developed since the Second World War.

The extent to which school history lessons actually foster national identity is not a question for which definitive empirical evidence exists but studies in other parts of Britain do indicate it has an influence.  It is thus not unreasonable to suggest that schools must have had some impact on Welsh national identity, but the new history curriculum in Wales did not meet the aspirations of its foundation.  The preferences of teachers and pupils meant Welsh history was simply never taught as much as the National Curriculum implied it should be.  This was enabled by the fact that the curriculum was never as prescriptive as it first seemed and had intended to be but Welsh history’s weakness was also fed by attitudes in the classroom.  A survey of pupils in the late 1990s suggested that while only a minority actively disliked the idea of studying Welsh history, few seemed enthusiastic about the subject, often perceiving it to be less interesting than ‘mainstream’ history.  The survey also found that schools in Monmouthshire were unenthusiastic about teaching Welsh history because their catchment areas stretched into England and there was little sense of Welsh identity amongst pupils.

Author: HanesCymru

I teach history at Swansea University.

One thought on “Welsh history in Welsh schools before the National Curriculum”

  1. I attended the county school ( post scholarship) in a Welsh market time ( all being it was a border county)
    The product of a Welsh Language village school suddenly immersed into an alien educational establishment that had adopted Jerusalem as it’s school hymn !!
    Every Friday morning assembly rang out with
    And did those fields in ancient times —- Ach yfi🤮🤮

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