Speaking the language of a bilingual nation

Ask any group of people, in any corner of the country, to discuss what makes our small nation unique and our language – Cymraeg – will always make the list.

Cymraeg has been spoken here (and elsewhere in Britain) for some 1,500 years, though by the start of the last century it had stopped being a majority language in all parts of the country. Since the late 1960s, various government initiatives have supported the promotion and growth of the language, including in education from pre-primary through to adult and workplace learning.

Wales is striving to become a fully bilingual nation. While this may attract questions from a few commentators here in Wales and elsewhere, it’s nevertheless an ambition supported by the vast majority of our citizens. This vision is bolstered by the government’s Cymraeg 2050 strategy, which aims to have a million Cymraeg speakers by the year 2050.

An ambitious target some may say. So how do we get there?

If we look at a young person’s first introduction to the language, it may be spoken at home, in the community or among friends, but it will always be offered as a subject at school.

As a regulator, we need to ensure that the qualifications our learners take enable them to have the confidence and enjoyment in using Cymraeg outside the classroom. We also need to take fairness and equality into account; we know our young people have varying levels of exposure to the language.

These qualifications must also support the new Curriculum for Wales, which aims to give learners more opportunities to succeed through a broad and balanced education.

There is only one Cymraeg language, which is why we are working to a single continuum for Welsh teaching and learning. This helps learners to see where they are at in their learning and how to move forward. It includes all learners, from those with little or no Welsh language experience, right through to those who are fluent and use the language daily.

To introduce just one Welsh language qualification wouldn’t allow all our learners across Wales to equally achieve in Cymraeg.

Considering all of the above, we have decided there will be a trio of Welsh language qualifications available for first teaching from 2025.

We recently held a webinar where we ran through the three qualifications and took questions from a range of participants. I’ve attempted to summarise what was discussed by key themes, below.

Combining language and literature allows more learners to study literature

We’re confident that more learners will have the opportunity to study literature as part of a combined GCSE. At the moment, not all learners who take GCSE Welsh Language also take GCSE Welsh Literature (source: Welsh Examinations Database), which means some don’t study literature beyond the age of 14. Bringing literature and language together in one GCSE will mean all learners continue to explore and enjoy literature until they are 16.  

There are other benefits to combining language and literature too. Assessing language and literature together builds learners’ linguistic skills and helps them to understand that literature is made of language, and explore how language works. 

A combined approach supports the aims of the Curriculum for Wales, which encourages learners to make connections within and across six broad areas of learning and experience; the Languages, Literacy and Communication Area of Learning and Experience (AoLE) emphasises the interconnectivity of language and literature.

We know some people are worried that replacing two qualifications with one could lead to less teaching time in schools. We expect the new qualification will be roughly the same size as one and half GCSEs. As we work with others to design the new GCSE, we will consider what guidance to offer schools on timetabling and delivery.

Building learner confidence in English-medium schools

We will create a new GCSE for learners in English-medium schools. This builds on major changes we made in 2017 when we created a new single GCSE to replace the previous full and short courses in GCSE Welsh Second Language and GCSE Applied Welsh. This new GCSE Welsh Second Language has been broadly welcomed within the teaching community. It has more robust assessment and focuses on developing learners’ speaking and listening skills.

We always intended to review the new GCSE Welsh Second Language once the new Curriculum for Wales was agreed.

There are those who say the new qualification is just GCSE Welsh Second Language with a new title. This is not the case. The new GCSE will have its roots firmly in the Curriculum for Wales.

But we also want to make sure the new GCSE builds on the strengths of the current, reformed qualification. A key aim for the new GCSE is to help learners become more confident in using their Welsh outside of school, so we will see a continued focus on speaking and listening skills. The new GCSE will still include literature to help learners build their skills and their appreciation of Welsh heritage and culture.

Further progression

Learners in English-medium schools who want to take their Welsh language further will be able to take an extra qualification, in addition to the new GCSE.

The qualification could help teachers to differentiate within the classroom and to support those learners who are ready to be stretched and challenged.  

It will allow learners to practise their speaking skills and gain confidence from applying language patterns in new contexts and building their vocabulary. The additional qualification is likely to be taught in the same lesson time as the new GCSE, so schools won’t need to commit extra teaching resource or timetable space.

Although we haven’t fixed the size of the new qualification at this stage, we anticipate that it will be smaller than a GCSE. This is something we’re reviewing as we work with teachers and others to look at how its content and assessment could be designed.

There’s still time to join the conversation

We heard many valuable points, suggestions and questions from participants in our webinar and from feedback to our announcement. And although our working groups for Cymraeg are full, it’s not too late to be part of the wider conversation. Please get in touch by emailing reform@qualificationswales.org

 By Emyr George, Director of Qualifications Policy and Reform