A short video I made for a Welsh Government event about history in the Curriculum for Wales.
The Curriculum for Wales, Welsh History and Citizenship, and the Threat of Embedding Inequality
Welsh education is heading towards its biggest shake up for two generations. The new Curriculum for Wales is intended to place responsibility for what pupils are taught with their teachers. It does not specify any required content but instead sets out ‘the essence of learning’ that should underpin the topics taught and learning activities employed. At secondary school, many traditional subjects will be merged into new broad areas of learning. The curriculum is intended to produce ‘ambitious and capable learners’ who are ‘enterprising and creative’, ‘ethical and informed citizens’, and ‘healthy and confident’.
Given how radical this change potentially is, there has been very little public debate about it. This is partly rooted in how abstract and difficult to understand the curriculum documentation is. It is dominated by technical language and abstract ideas and there is very little concrete to debate. There also seems to be a belief that in science and maths very little will change because of how those subjects are based on unavoidable core knowledges. Instead, most of the public discussion that has occurred has centred on the position of Welsh history.
The focus on history is rooted in how obsessed much of the Welsh public sphere (including myself) is by questions of identity. History is central to why Wales is a nation and thus has long been promoted by those seeking is develop a Welsh sense of nationhood. Concerns that children are not taught enough Welsh history are longstanding and date back to at least the 1880s. The debates around the teaching of Welsh history are also inherently political. Those who believe in independence often feel their political cause is hamstrung by people being unaware of their own history.
The new curriculum is consciously intended to be ‘Welsh’ in outlook and it requires the Welsh context to be central to whatever subject matter is delivered. This matters most in the Humanities where the Welsh context is intended to be delivered through activities and topics that join together the local, national and global. The intention is that this will instil in them ‘passion and pride in themselves, their communities and their country’. This quote comes from a guidance document for schools and might alarm those who fear a government attempt at Welsh nation building. Other documents are less celebratory but still clearly Welsh in outlook. Thus the goal stated in the main documentation is that learners should ‘develop a strong sense of their own identity and well-being’, ‘an understanding of others’ identities and make connections with people, places and histories elsewhere in Wales and across the world.’
A nearby slate quarry could thus be used to teach about local Welsh-speaking culture, the Welsh and British industrial revolution, and the connections between the profits of the slave trade and the historical local economy. This could bring in not just history, but literature, art, geography and economics too. There is real potential for exciting programmes of study that break down subject boundaries and engage pupils with where they live and make them think and understand their community’s connections with Wales and the wider world.
This is all sensible but there remains a vagueness around the underlying concepts. The Humanities section of the curriculum speaks of the need for ‘consistent exposure to the story of learners’ locality and the story of Wales’. Schools are asked to ‘Explore Welsh businesses, cultures, history, geography, politics, religions and societies’. But this leaves considerable freedom over the balance of focus and what exactly ‘consistent exposure’ means in practice. If schools want to minimize the Welsh angle in favour of the British or the global, they will be able to do so as long as the Welsh context is there. It is not difficult to imagine some schools treating ‘the story of Wales’ as a secondary concern because that is what already sometimes happens.
The existing national curriculum requires local and Welsh history to be ‘a focus of the study’ but, like its forthcoming replacement, it never defines very closely what that means in terms of actual practice. In some schools, it seems that the Welsh perspective is reduced to a tick box exercise where Welsh examples are occasionally employed but never made the heart of the history programme. I say ‘seems’ because there is no data on the proportion of existing pre-GCSE history teaching that is devoted to Welsh history. But all the anecdotal evidence points to Wales often not being at the heart of what history is taught, at least in secondary schools. At key stage 3 (ages 11 to 14) in particular, the Welsh element can feel rather nominal as many children learn about the Battle of Hastings, Henry VIII and the Nazis. GCSEs were reformed in 2017 to ensure Welsh history is not marginalised but at A Level the options schools choose reveal a stark preference in some units away from not just Wales but Britain too.
Why schools chose not to teach more Welsh history is a complex issue. Within a curriculum that is very flexible, teachers deliver what they are confident in, what they have resources for, what interests them and what they think pupils will be interested in. Not all history teachers have been taught Welsh history at school or university and they thus perhaps prefer to lean towards those topics they are familiar with. Resources are probably an issue too. While there are plenty of Welsh history resources out there, they can be scattered around and locating them is not always easy. Some of the best date back to the 1980 and 90s and are not online. There is also amongst both pupils and teachers the not-unreasonable idea that Welsh history is simply not as interesting as themes such as Nazi Germany. This matters because, after key stage 3, different subjects are competing for pupils and thus resources.
The new curriculum does nothing to address any of these issues and it is probable that it will not do much to enhance the volume of Welsh history taught beyond the local level. It replicates the existing curriculum’s flexibility with some loose requirement for a Welsh focus. Within that flexibility, teachers will continue to be guided by their existing knowledge, what resources they already have, what topics and techniques they already know work, and how much time and confidence they have to make changes. Some schools will update what they do but in many there is a very real possibility that not much will change at all, as teachers simply mould the tried and tested existing curricular into the new model. No change is always the easiest policy outcome to follow. Those schools that already teach a lot of Welsh history will continue to do so. Many of those that do not will also probably carry on in that vein.
Of course, a system designed to allow different curricula is also designed to produce different outcomes. The whole point of the reform is for schools to be different to one another but there may be unintended consequences to this. Particularly in areas where schools are essentially in competition with each other for pupils, some might choose to develop a strong sense of Welshness across all subject areas because they feel it will appeal to local parents and local authority funders. Others might go the opposite way for the same reasons, especially in border areas where attracting staff from England is important. Welsh-medium schools are probably more likely to be in the former group and English-medium schools in the latter.
Moreover, the concerns around variability do not just extend to issues of Welsh identity and history. By telling schools they can teach what they feel matters, the Welsh Government is telling them they do not have to teach, say, the histories of racism or the Holocaust. It is unlikely that any school history department would choose not to teach what Hitler inflicted upon the world but they will be perfectly at liberty to do so; indeed, by enshrining their right to do this, the Welsh Government is saying it would be happy for any school to follow such a line. Quite how that fits with the government’s endorsement of Holocaust Memorial Day and Mark Drakeford’s reminder of the importance of remembering such genocides is unclear.
There are other policy disconnects. The right to vote in Senedd elections has been granted to sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. Yet the government has decided against requiring them to be taught anything specific about that institution, its history and how Welsh democracy works. Instead, faith is placed in a vague requirement for pupils to be made into informed and ethical citizens. By age 16, the ‘guidance’ says learners should be able to ‘compare and evaluate local, national and global governance systems, including the systems of government and democracy in Wales, considering their impact on societies in the past and present, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens in Wales.’ Making Wales an ‘including’ rather than the main focus of this ‘progression step’ seems to me to downplay its importance. Moreover, what this sentence actually means in terms of class time and knowledge is up to schools and teachers. Some pupils will be taught lots about devolved politics, others little. The government is giving young people the responsibility of voting but avoiding its own responsibility to ensure they are taught in any depth what that means in a Welsh context.
The new curriculum will thus not educate everyone in the same elements of political citizenship or history because it is explicitly designed to not do so. Just as they do now, pupils will continue to leave schools with very different understandings of what Wales is, what the Senedd does and how both fit into British, European and global contexts. Perhaps that does not matter if we want pupils to make up their own minds about how they should be governed. But, at the very least, if we are going to give young people the vote, surely it is not too much to want them to be told where it came from, what it means, and what it can do.
But this is not the biggest missed opportunity of the curriculum. Wales already has an educational system that produces very different outcomes for those who go through it. In 2019, 28.4% of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved five A*-C grade GCSEs, compared with 60.5% of those not eligible. In 2018, 75.3% of pupils in Ceredigion hit this level, whereas in Blaenau Gwent only 56.7% did. These are staggering differences that have nothing to do with the curriculum and everything to do with how poverty impacts on pupils’ lives. There is nothing in the new curriculum that looks to eradicate such differences.
Teachers in areas with the highest levels of deprivation face a daily struggle to deal with its consequences. This will also impact on what the new curriculum can achieve in their schools. It will be easier to develop innovative programmes that take advantage of what the new curriculum can enable in schools where teachers are not dealing with the extra demands of pupils who have missed breakfast or who have difficult home lives. Fieldtrips are easiest in schools where parents can afford them. Home learning is most effective in homes with books, computers and internet access. The very real danger of the new curriculum is not what it will or will not do for Welsh citizenship and history but that it will exacerbate the already significant difference between schools in affluent areas and schools that are not. Wales needs less difference between its schools, not more.
Martin Johnes is Professor of History at Swansea University.
This essay was first published in the Welsh Agenda (2020).
For more analysis of history and the Curriculum for Wales see this essay.
Getting ready to study history at university
Students starting history degrees in 2020 will be in unusual positions. It will be six months since they were last in a classroom. Some are worrying that not taking A Level exams will hold back their transition to university. This short blog is some suggestions of things students can do to help prepare.
In many ways, reading anything is preparing for university. Being comfortable with spending a lot of time in a book is important. Reading novels is a great way to both develop this skill and to start thinking about the past.
One book that everyone interested in the history of the modern world should read is George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Quite simply, it is one of the most (or perhaps the most) important novels ever written. It is about how power operates, and the role of history and knowledge in that. Its observations on oppression, privacy, freedom and what we now call fake news are very pertinent for the present day too. It also reminds us of how much fear for the future there was after the Second World War.
There are a vast amount of good historical podcasts out there. They are not dissimilar to lectures and are thus an excellent way of getting used to listening historians talking about subjects at length.
The National Archives have many that are very useful, partly because they often talk about the sources that history is based on. Here are a few particularly useful ones for the Modern British history. They will help you think about how varied history can be but also how we can assess and judge the past.
- Did militancy help or hinder the fight for the women’s franchise? https://media.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php/suffrage-100-militancy-help-hinder-fight-franchise/
- Blindness in Victorian Britain https://media.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php/blindness-victorian-britain/
- Shell-Shocked Britain: Understanding the lasting trauma of the First World War https://media.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php/shell-shocked-britain-understanding-lasting-trauma-first-world-war/
- England ’66: the best of times? https://media.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php/england-66-best-times/
Films about the past
Historians can be sniffy about their accuracy but historical movies really matter because they reach audiences far in excess of anything an actual historian ever writes.
Watching a variety of films on the same topic can be a very useful historical task. It helps us understand the public understanding of the past and it also involves a skill that is central to studying history – history at university is not just about studying the past but also about comparing and evaluating the ways that past has been interpreted and understood.
A fascinating and moving film that captures one perspective on women’s history and the First World War is Testament of Youth (2014).
It’s based on a famous memoir by Vera Brittain and portrays the growing disillusionment with war that some people felt. Alongside the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and others, the original book was part of a genre that has led some people to think that was how everyone felt about the war. This genre influenced later tragic portrayals of the Great War such as War Horse and even Blackadder goes Forth. In this view, the war was something futile.
The pride many soldiers felt in what they had done has been rather written out of depictions of the war. You can see it, however, in Peaky Blinders when characters discuss the war. Even the recent Wonder Woman film could be argued as having some historical worth for how it portrayed the First World War as a battle against evil. That is how many people saw it at the time. Sometimes historical insights can be found in curious places. It doesn’t matter what you watch as long as you don’t just accept it as true!
Films from the past
Rather than just watching films made about the past, it’s also useful to watch films made in that past. They bring it to life in a way the written word perhaps can’t. Of course, they are selective in what they depict but no source is ever without ‘bias’.
The 1940s was something of a golden era for British cinema and offers rich viewing. Millions Like Us (1943) was a propaganda film designed to encourage people to feel their sacrifices were important and shared by people across Britain. It’s a vivid portrayal of the home front, class and gender, or at least how the film makers wanted the home front, class and gender be seen. It’s well worth watching and thinking about how audiences during the war would have felt about it. Did they think they were being manipulated? Did the film feel true to them? Does propaganda need to be subtle to work?
You can watch it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNglGkEmYDE and read more about it here: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/442138/index.html
Write and talk!
Whatever you watch or read, it’s worth writing something about it. Put your thoughts onto paper or screen. It doesn’t matter if it’s blog, a Facebook post, or a message to a friend. Writing helps give shape to your ideas. It develops confidence that what you think matters (and it does!). Studying history is all about interpretation. There aren’t right answers. So practice telling others what you think about stuff, whether it’s historical, political or personal.
At university (and in many jobs) you will have to write a lot so using the written word is a skill to develop but so too is talking. Discuss things with whoever you live with. Articulate and debate but remember to listen too. Listening to others is key to learning.
History degrees are not really about what you know but about how you think. They encourage you to be critical about what you read and watch and to think about how things compare and connect to each other. These skills matter in the world and will help you in all kinds of jobs.
Thus what really matters in getting ready for university is not learning about specific things from the past but keeping your brain active. Read, think, talk and write! Just do that and you will be fine.
A very brief history of recreation in the modern world
Historians have not always treated recreation very seriously as a topic of inquiry but it has always mattered to individuals in the modern world. Work may structure their day but play makes it worthwhile. Whether a song, a film, a game, a drink or even sex, recreation mattered and matters to people. These were not trivial asides; they were integral parts of people’s daily experience and influenced their outlooks on and understandings of the world they lived in. Yet, both the form and meaning of recreation was structured by the wider social and economic contours of life.
Eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, modern recreation was shaped by the experience of industrialization. Efficient production demanded that time be organised and segmented. This meant that recreation too became regimented and bound by time, both hindering and enabling play. Long festivals and festivities went into decline with the coming of industry but new opportunities opened up in the time that was designated for recreation, especially on Saturdays, a day which offered escape from work before the more subdued hiatus of the Sabbath. Furthermore, modern industrial conditions brought rising incomes for the working and middle classes, enabling people to purchase pleasure in their spare time. By the late nineteenth century, people in industrial countries were spending money on tobacco, alcohol, gambling, sport, confectionary, and even holidays.
Of course, the boundaries between work and recreation were never impermeable. People talked, joked and even played while at work, and outside work domestic, family and religious chores and duties could lack the fun that should characterize play. Furthermore, as leisure itself was commercialized to take advantage of the rising demand, one person’s recreation became another’s employment. Similarly, developments like bicycling, which gained huge popularity at the very end of nineteenth century, served as both a means of travel for work and pleasure.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, industrialization may have changed the patterns of play in those communities that underwent it, but there was much continuity in its forms. The pleasures of drink and the escapism of drunkenness were as popular after the industrial revolution as they were before it. Music, dancing and sports were also integral parts of popular culture in both the premodern and the modern worlds. But modernization was bringing rationalization and organization, and it increasingly became the norm for such older collective but informal recreational traditions to be organized into clubs and societies. Competitions and rules became more formalized and the pursuit of pleasure justified by arguments for its moral and physical worth. Nowhere was this is clearer than in the world of sport, where, led by the British and to a lesser extent the French, new rules, competitions, and traditions were established from the late nineteenth century. Sports became part of the building of the character and physique of young men, a tool to ensure national survival in the midst of international tensions and ideas of social Darwinism. The economic and political patterns of a world of empires also took sports across the globe, introducing them to non-industrial territories like India, where they quickly gained a local following, although not always in the spirit or form that their imperial masters had intended.
The rationalization of play was important as recreation increasingly became a contested political and moral space in the industrializing world. Drink had long since attracted religious oppositions but as religion itself was undermined by the spread of education, science and recreation, churches turned their attention to other pastimes that were thought to distract hearts and minds from God. In Catholic countries in particular the influence of the church was strong and this hindered the development of some modern forms of recreation such as formalized gambling. Recreation was also under attack from the growth of rational and scientific thinking that thought time and effort should only be employed on matters that were beneficial to the mind, body and community. Thus while the arts were widely deemed rational recreation, more populist pleasures were not, particularly when there were undertones of violence or debauchery. This was evident in the gradual growth in distaste for pastimes that involved cruelty to animals. However, precise attitudes towards what was socially acceptable obviously varied across cultures, as can be seen in the survival of the bullfight as a popular form of entertainment in Spain nearly two centuries after similar pastimes were outlawed in Britain.
The twentieth century
By the twentieth century technological developments were broadening the range and possibilities of recreation. The most significant invention in the field of recreation was the cinema, an international medium that literally changed the way people saw the world. In the early twentieth century, it opened up horizons and imaginations and had a profound effect on people individually and collectively; lives became less drab, wars and threats overseas seemed more real. It also began the trend of the Americanization of global popular culture and created global stars like Charlie Chaplin. The best films was not all American as, say, the great silent pictures of Weimar Germany or the sound films of 1930s France showed, but, as technologies got bigger and more expensive, it was increasingly difficult for other nations to produce films of the scale, spectacle and sheer impact of Hollywood.
Sport was another global phenomenon. Soccer, in particular, became an obsession that transcended national boundaries, although it was often utilized as a symbol of national and political pride, not least by the totalitarian regimes of left and right. The Olympic Games too became associated with deliberate and incidental exhibitions of national status, despite its initial conception as a celebration of international togetherness. Nonetheless, events like the World Cup and the Olympics did become genuine shared experiences that stretched across the globe.
Of course, not all recreation was communal. The home remained an important site of recreation, especially for women. Reading, embroidery, pets and even sex were things that could be enjoyed in the home of the growing literate masses. The development of the radio after the First World War was especially important in encouraging domestic recreation, although the relative expense of a set meant that it was not until the Second World War, fed by a hunger for news, that it achieved a truly mass audience in Europe. After the 1939-45 conflict, aided by the new rising prosperity, television became the dominant and ubiquitous source of both recreation and information. By the late 1960s it was the norm for homes in Europe, North America and Australasia to have a set. It was simultaneously a private and shared experience: millions of people watched the same programmes but they did so from the comfort of their own homes. The development of satellite broadcasting in the 1960s enabled the live audiences for significant sporting and news events to extend around the globe, while the content of other programming, both educational and trivial, was a mix of the local and the imported.
For all its far-reaching significance in the west, television remained beyond the reach of those in poverty in the developing world. The reach of the globalized popular culture that was at the heart of recreation in the second half of the twentieth century was still limited by the realities of inequalities of wealth. Indeed, even within the west, a lack of access to popular recreation compounded the more fundamental miseries of poverty: poor diet and housing. It is the poorest’s lack of access to modern forms of recreation that undermines Marxist views of leisure as an opiate of the masses, something to distract them from wider political and economic struggles. This is not to suggest that that movies, drugs, alcohol or sport could not have this function but limited access certainly limits recreation’s political influence.
Nor was it just money that constrained modern recreation. Leisure was often highly gendered, reinforcing and reproducing wider female subordinate roles, from simply seeing recreation as the prerogative of only the male wage earner to employing women in brothels as entertainment for men. Racial prejudices too could, officially and unofficially, prevent people from partaking in everything from public dances to world title boxing bouts. Such restrictions eased as the west gradually became more racially tolerant after the Second World War and leisure even became an arena that encouraged such developments. Popular music was key here. Although black musical forms like jazz and the blues were initially widely distrusted because of their racial base, they gradually crossed over into mainstream popular culture, entertaining and influencing white people across the western world. Rock’n’roll in the 1950s and pop in the 1960s were dominated by both white artists and audiences but their roots lay in black musical forms.
Popular music in this era started as part of a new youth culture but, as generations aged, it became part of mainstream recreation. Like much modern recreation, it became a huge global industry in its own right and, even when associated with social and political rebellion, popular music was intensely commercialized. It also encapsulated the nature of global popular culture: strong common threads, structures and forms that absorbed local influences and then transmitted them across national boundaries, a process engendered and driven by the globalized economy and mass media. Recreation was thus not only an integral part of people’s lives across the globe, it was also an arena that made a global culture something more real than simply the abstract flows of economic and political ties.
Digital resources on Welsh history 1847-1947
This probably duplicates info already on Blackboard / Canvas but hopefully it helps with your essays when library access might be reduced. It should be used in conjunction with the guide to online historical sources produced by the library. The list below is more Wales-specific and focuses on what is useful for the Welsh Century module.
There is a review of the academic historiography of modern Wales here. You’ll need to use your Swansea log-in. It’s a bit dated now but does offer an introduction that should give you ideas. There is another version of the same essay here which does not require a log in.
Historical Welsh newspapers
Access to a large number of local newspapers from Wales from the pre 1919 period. https://newspapers.library.wales/
Welsh journals and periodicals
This is full-text versions of journals, magazines and periodical from the eighteenth century until the 21st century. It will thus give you access to primary and secondary sources and can be searched by name, place, word etc. https://journals.library.wales/
Dictionary of Welsh Biography
Short biographies of eminent and sometimes obscure figures in Welsh history. If you want to find out about individuals you should also look at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Swansea log-in required).
The Digest of Welsh Historical Statistics 1700-1974
The British Film Institute has a variety of different films about Wales. The collection includes home movies and factual films.
Newsreels were news fims broadcast at the cinema before the main picture. You can access newsreel reports from between the wars here. Just search for Wales.
Welsh History Review
This is the leading journal for academic work on Welsh history. Digital copies are free from 1967 to 2002. If you are looking for a specific article and volume you can access them here. If you are searching for a theme or key word, then use this search page and enter Welsh History Review into the publication title box.
For issues after 2002, you need to use this database. You will need to sign in using your Swansea login details.
Llafur is the other academic journal dedicated to general Welsh history.Digital copies are free from 1972 to 2004. If you are looking for a specific article and volume you can access them here. If you are searching for a theme or key word, then use this search page and enter Llafur into the publication title box Issues after 2002 are not online.
This is an online repository for historical images and some documents. The content is quite eclectic but it is full of rich material and worth searching.
Contains full text versions of many nineteenth-century publications including the infamous Blue Books. Worth playing around.
History of the Welsh language
- An important essay about the early history of the Welsh language question on the census.
- 1891 census report on languages in Wales
- 1901 census report on languages in Wales
- 1911 census report on languages in Wales
- 1921 census report on language in Wales
- Overview of how the census question on Welsh has changed and its accuracy
Wales and War
- Cymru 1914: the Welsh experience of the First World War A digital collection of primary sources on Wales and the First World War
- Historical resources on peace activism in Wales http://www.walesforpeace.org/wfp/index.html
- Green Mountain, Black Mountain (1942). A Second World War propaganda film written by Dylan Thomas that offers a vivid picture of Wales.
- Martin Johnes, Welshness, Welsh Soldiers and the Second World War. Academic chapter.
- Some short online essays by me on Wales and the Second World War
- Daily Life During World War II (BBC Wales)
- Evacuation and Wales in World War II (BBC Wales)
- Bombing raids in Wales (BBC Wales)
- Women in World War II (BBC Wales)
- The coal industry in World War II (BBC Wales)
- Welsh identity during the Second World War (BBC Wales)
- Swansea’s Blitz (Click on Wales)
- You should also, of course, also consider the British historiography since this was a period when there were very clear UK-wide trends. An excellent academic introduction for the Second World War can be found here.
- Resources from the National Museum looking at 1900-1918
- Welsh Women’s Archive Includes material on women in the First World War.
- A BBC podcast where Dr Stephanie Ward discusses gender in modern Welsh history
- Labour Party manifestos
- A BBC podcast where Dr Daryl Leeworthy discusses the politics of mining communities and what the Labour Party achieved
- Hansard: transcriptions of Parliamentary debates
- Election statistics (1918-)
- British Cartoon Archive (University of Kent) http://library.kent.ac.uk/cartoons/ World’s largest archive of (newspaper) cartoons.
- Plaid Cymru History– lots of phamplets and other resources
- Cabinet papers from the British government. What happened in Wales was shaped by decisions made in Westminster…
Explore historic maps from Wales and the UK here.
Episode 2 of Wales: England’s Colony? (2019) Presented by yours truly, it explores the relationship between Wales and England in the modern period.
Episode 4 of The Story of Wales (2012). An overview of the industrial revolution and its impact on Wales.
Episode 5 of The Story of Wales (2012). An overview of industrial and modern Welsh society. Covers much of the ground we have looked at in The Welsh Century.
Saunders Lewis (1992). A documentary about one of the founders of Plaid Cymru.
The Dragon has two Tongues. This was a 1980s documentary that debated Welsh history. ITV have not allowed it to be put online but these extracts offer some sense of its overall debate about the nature of Wales’s past.
Education, the decline of Welsh and why communities matter more than classrooms
This article was first published at https://nation.cymru/opinion/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.
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 from the 1860s.
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 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.
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.
Ought we to feel bitter against the English now? (1910)
If you and I had lived in the time of Llywelyn the last, no doubt we should have felt very bitter, when we saw our friends killed, our lands torn from us, and our families cruelly treated by a nation that could not excuse themselves by saying they were bringing us the gifts of civilization.
Ought we to feel bitter against the English now? If you will think of this carefully, you will see the answer is “No.” Englishmen are no longer free to harm our friends, or take away our lands, or treat our families cruelly. The law protects a Welshman from a bad Englishman in exactly the same way as it protects an Englishman from a bad Welshman. In law, Welshmen and Englishmen are equal.
William Glover, Stories from Welsh History (1910).