Welsh or English-medium schooling – how parents make their choice in South-East Wales

A female teacher sitting around a table with primary school pupils in a classroom.

Siôn Llewelyn Jones explores how parents choose the medium of their child’s education

Recently, the Welsh Government set a target of increasing the number of Welsh speakers to 1 million by 2050. The Welsh Government considers Welsh-medium education to be central in achieving this target.

At the moment, in South-East Wales, parents choose whether to send their children to a Welsh-medium or an English-medium school. Existing studies have shown how perceptions regarding the cultural, educational and economic value of the Welsh language influence parents when making this decision. Parents who choose Welsh-medium education consider that the Welsh language will be beneficial to their children, while parents opting for English-medium education may have concerns regarding Welsh-medium education and/or may have less positive perceptions about the value of the Welsh language.

The proximity of the school to the home is another factor which influences choice. As there are substantially fewer Welsh-medium schools compared to English-medium schools in South-East Wales, Welsh-medium education tends to be a logistically inconvenient option for parents. However, certain parents in Daniel Evans’s recent study considered a Welsh-medium school as a practical option as it was “on the way to work”.

Furthermore, the possession or lack of different resources may influence choice of medium of education. Although children receive free transport if they live two miles or more to their local Welsh-medium and English-medium primary school, we should acknowledge that it may be harder for parents who lack economic resources to send their children to Welsh-medium schools because they may not have access to a car and might consider public transport costs to be too expensive.

We also need to acknowledge how possession of cultural capital (which is related to educational and cultural knowledge) may also shape choice. Researchers such as Sharon Gewirtz et al have also shown that certain parents who possess cultural capital (because of their education and familiarity with the education system) are able to better understand and evaluate published information about different schools. Parents who lack cultural capital may find it difficult to make sense of published information and therefore may opt for the local school, which tends to be an English-medium school in South-East Wales.

Our social networks (which are not only shaped by where we live, but also based on social class relations) play a role in shaping choice too. As Stephen Ball and Carol Vincent illustrate, certain parents, particularly from higher socio-economic backgrounds, gain knowledge about different schools from an extensive social network which includes other parents from higher socio-economic backgrounds. In contrast, the social networks of parents from lower socio-economic backgrounds, may be limited to other parents from similar socio-economic backgrounds who may influence them to opt for an English-medium school as English-medium education tends to be the default option in South-East Wales.

Perceptions regarding the social composition of schools may also shape choice of medium of education. In their study, Sharon Gewirtz et al found that parents tend to send their children to schools where their children will have classmates from similar social backgrounds.  Research (for example, Anthony Packer and Cefin Campbell) has shown that parents are discouraged from sending their children to Welsh-medium schools because they fear their children will be ostracised for attending a school that is different to the school that most of the children in their neighbourhood attend. On the other hand, parents, from higher socio-economic backgrounds, may choose to send their children to schools which they believe have middle class intakes because they believe it will beneficial for their children’s education and will prevent their children from ending up in the ‘wrong groups’ (see Sharon Gewirtz et al).

Future research on choice of medium of education needs to not only examine the reasons why parents choose Welsh-medium or English-medium education for their children, but also needs to explore how the possession or lack of different resources (economic, social and cultural) as well as perceptions regarding the social composition of schools shape choice of medium of education. This research may help us to explain why Welsh-medium schools in South-East Wales have on average a lower proportion of students on free school meals (a widely used and reasonable indicator of household poverty).

Research into this area is vital in order to help the Welsh Government  develop policies that will enable children from all social backgrounds to access Welsh-medium education and reach their target of increasing the number of Welsh speakers to 1 million.

Siôn Llewelyn Jones from Cardiff University’s School of Social Sciences recently wrote the article, “What do we know and not know about choice of medium of education in South-East Wales?” published in the Wales Journal of Education. Siôn presented as part of the latest WISERD Cardiff lunchtime seminar series and at the WISERD Annual Conference 2017. He also explored the relationship between Welsh-medium schools and pupils from middle-class backgrounds at this year’s National Eisteddfod over the summer.

Photo credit: Il Microfono (CC BY 2.0)