It’s been three weeks since I asked Toby Belfield, principal at Ruthin School, Denbighshire, North Wales if he would be willing to share the evidence upon which he based his assertion that “part of the problem with forcing young people to learn both English and Welsh (arguably, both to a substandard level) is that young people in Wales will continue to be educationally weaker than their peers in England and abroad.” (see this post).
I have not had any response (not even a cursory ‘no comment’) to the two emails and three tweets I sent to him. Perhaps he is too busy to want to get involved further after his public and unreserved apology – it is exams season, after all.
In that apology though, Belfield fails to address his claim about the effects of dual language education. Instead, he engages in special pleading to recast his assertions as something they were not. His original letter stated that dual language education (“forcing young people to learn both English and Welsh”) puts Welsh children at a disadvantage. In it he also contended that the educational system in Wales should have English as its first language. He now says that what he meant was that he rejects Welsh only education, that he thinks finding suitably qualified teachers who speak Welsh would be difficult, and that he supports parental choice. He did not address any of these things in his original letter (indeed, his insisting that schools in Wales should have English as their first language rather contradicts that last point). This special pleading, in lieu of addressing what he actually said in his letter, suggests either that he is unwilling or unable to support his original position or that he is not sufficiently adept at expressing himself in a letter written for public consumption. I will leave readers to consider which of these possibilities should be the greater concern for the parents of children at his school.
But, to the question of evidence. Belfield has shown no interest in addressing the claim he made, so I felt it only right to attempt to do so on his behalf.
First, I want to be clear that I intend only to address the question of the effects of dual language or Welsh Medium education in Wales with substantive, empirical evidence. There are other claims that Belfield makes that could be assessed in the light of evidence. For example, we could look at whether it would be hard to find sufficiently qualified bilingual teachers, whether children with Welsh as their first language do find it harder to get into top universities, whether job prospects are worse for Welsh-speaking school leavers, whether those Welsh-speaking school leavers who want to find employment outside of Wales do find it more difficult, and so on. I will say no more about them, other than to invoke Hitchen’s Razor.
Belfield is quoted as saying that he based his opinion about the precursors of the poor performance of Welsh school children on the NfER report on the PISA assessments of 2012. In 2012 PISA tested the reading, science and mathematics attainment of 15 year-olds in 65 countries. From the UK data, the NfER prepared reports for each of the constituent countries of the union. I obtained a copy of the Wales report referenced by Belfield to see if I could find anything in it that would lend support to the notion that Welsh medium or dual language education is responsible for poor performance among Welsh children.
On reading the report it is easy to sympathise with Belfield’s concern for the Welsh education system. In summary, Wales is said to be performing significantly below the mean average for OECD countries in all subjects assessed, and significantly lower than all other areas of the UK. Notwithstanding that half of the countries in the sample necessarily must fall below the mean average; so far, so concerning.
These data are derived from the averages of all 3305 Welsh students attending a total of 137 Welsh schools that took part in the assessments. So, if you want to draw conclusions about the effect language of instruction has on attainment, the sensible thing to look for is the languages of instruction of the schools that took part in the assessments. Were they Welsh Medium, English Medium, dual language, or all three? If it was all three, is there any breakdown of results by school type that could indicate if any one type is outperforming the others?
In the appendix of the report (page 101) we learn that “The sample in Wales contained Welsh and English medium schools and bilingual schools, although language of instruction was not a stratification variable.” This means that when the 137 schools that took part in the assessments were initially chosen, no attempt was made to sample a representative number of each type of school. So, we know that Welsh and English medium schools and bilingual schools took part in the assessments, but not how many nor in what proportions.
Later in the appendix we are told that a Welsh language version of the test was made available to schools who requested it (page 103). They report that in 14 schools all students completed the Welsh language versions of the tests and that in a further 8 schools some students completed the Welsh language version. The report states that, in total, 381 students carried out the tests in Welsh. From these figures we might infer that 14 of the 137 schools were Welsh medium and that the other 8 schools might have been bilingual schools, or Welsh medium schools with students who nonetheless preferred to take the tests in English.
According to Welsh Government statistics, in 2012 there were 56 (25%) Welsh medium secondary schools, serving 41,262 (21%) children. So if my guesswork is in any way accurate, we might conclude that Welsh medium schools are underrepresented in the PISA sample as a proportion of secondary schools in Wales as a whole (approximately 10% as opposed to 25% – or approximately 16% if we include the schools where only some students took the test in Welsh), as are students taking the test in Welsh, compared to the proportion of children in total who attend Welsh medium schools (11% as opposed to 21%). But, as I say, this is guesswork, and nowhere in the report is this clarified. And nowhere in the report are the results of the assessments broken down by school type anyway. This leaves us none the wiser as to any potential associations between language of instruction and student attainment.
So, what can we conclude from this? Mainly, that Toby Belfield can’t have based his claims about the effects of Welsh language education on anything contained in the PISA report that he suggests informed them.
I wasn’t happy to leave it there though, so I contacted the authors of the report to ask if they would be willing to share the raw data so that I could do my own sub-group analysis based on language of instruction.
Bethan Burge, one of the authors of the report, was extremely helpful and explained to me that the data was owned by the British and Welsh governments and that I would need to ask them if I could see it. However, she did send me a copy of another report that she and a colleague had prepared using the PISA data, entitled Additional Analysis of Wales’ Performance in PISA 2012. In addition to the sub-group analyses you would expect (results by gender, free school meals, ethnicity, SEN and so on) it had a short analysis of the results of the PISA assessments, stratified by medium of instruction.
Here it is in all its glory:
In reading and science, the performance of learners attending Welsh medium and English medium schools is comparable, that is, score differences are not statistically significant. However, in mathematics, learners attending Welsh medium schools outperform those in English medium schools by 10 score points. This difference is statistically significant.
Burge and Lenkiet (2015:7)
In addition there is some analysis of GCSE results and language of instruction:
At the school level, there are significant associations between medium of instruction and mathematics GCSE scores […] if we look at a group of learners with similar scores in the PISA mathematics assessment and similar individual learner characteristics, those in a Welsh-medium school will, on average, have higher mathematics GCSE scores.
Burge and Lenkiet (2015:12)
At the school level, as is the case for mathematics, there are significant associations between medium of instruction and science GCSE scores […] This means that if we look at a group of learners with similar scores in the PISA science assessment and similar individual learner characteristics, those in a Welsh-medium school will, on average, have higher science GCSE scores.
Burge and Lenkiet (2015:12-13)
So, I can now answer my own #AskForEvidence based on the same data source that provoked Belfield to make his bold claim. Far from putting students at a disadvantage, the PISA data suggest that language of instruction makes no difference to outcomes in science and reading (and so guilt-free parental choice can be exercised) and that Welsh medium schools put students at an advantage in maths. In terms of GCSE results, all else being equal, Welsh medium schools are associated with higher achievement in GCSE maths and science.
Of course there are always caveats to any data set, some of which I have addressed in my original post on this matter, and the article linked to by one of the comments on that post is a useful read in this regard. Nonetheless, it is helpful to know that empirical evidence is available to inform assessment of the effects of different models of Welsh education. And empirical evidence is always preferable to personal opinions based, we can only assume, on no more than gut feeling.
Yesterday my attention was drawn to an article on the Wales Online news website that reports on a letter written to a local newspaper by Toby Belfield, headteacher of Ruthin School in Denbighshire, North Wales. In the letter he responds to a parent’s suggestion that the language of instruction in schools in Wales should be Welsh by suggesting that by “forcing young people to learn both English and Welsh (arguably, both to a substandard level) is that young people in Wales will continue to be educationally weaker than their peers in England and abroad.” (Williams 2015a).
This is an interesting claim and one which could be supported or refuted by empirical evidence.
So, in the spirit of encouraging members of the educational community to base their assertions on evidence, I decided to ask Toby Belfield for the evidence upon which he based those in his letter. To do this I used the excellent Ask For Evidence website. The Ask For Evidence initiative was set up by Sense About Science to help “people request for themselves the evidence behind news stories, marketing claims and policies” (AskForEvidence 2011).
Here is the text of my request for evidence:
Dear Mr Belfield
I read with interest about the the disagreement being voiced between you and some members of the Welsh community with regards to the effects that Welsh language education has on the attainment of children educated in Wales (Wales Online 14 May 2015).
I am a doctoral researcher in Oxford, with a particular interest in the way that first and second languages interact during the learning process. My thesis investigates whether making use of a child’s first language in an otherwise monolingual English speaking environment is helpful, harmful or makes no difference.
I am currently preparing a systematic review of empirical studies that have investigated this question. This involves as exhaustive a search as possible to find reports of studies addressing this issue, so that a comprehensive picture of the effects can be assembled, as free as possible from bias.
I would be very grateful if you felt able to provide me with the evidence upon which your comments to the press in Wales were based. This would allow me to incorporate into my review studies that I may have missed.
As an educator of some 20 years prior to going into research, I feel that it is absolutely vital that decisions in education are based on sound empirical evidence, so that we as teachers can be confident that what we are doing is as effective as possible in raising attainment of the children to whom we are responsible.
Please note that in addition to my own research, I am asking this as part of the Ask for Evidence campaign and will share the response I get publicly.
I look forward to hearing from you.
I think that it is unlikely that Mr Belfield will be able to provide me with evidence to support his claim that learning two languages in and of itself is harmful to the academic prospects of Welsh children. The evidence of which I am aware would suggest either that it makes no difference in the long term, or that it is beneficial. But this evidence is derived in the main from studies conducted in the USA or Canada, and so he may be aware of similar studies carried out in Wales that would suggest otherwise.
Where he might have a point is in his assertion that teaching Welsh and English “arguably, both to a substandard level” (Williams 2015a) could have negative effects of the overall attainment of Welsh children. This, though, is not a question of what one teaches, but rather the competence with which it is taught. Indeed, reading between the lines of his letter, there is more than language of instruction that he is worried about, and he makes a number of further claims on which he might be reasonably challenged.
I sympathise with his question later in his letter asking “Why is the Welsh education system one of the weakest in the world?”(ibid). He makes a leap of logic though to suggest that it is weak because of the necessity in some schools in Wales to learn Welsh. But that – in the absence of any evidence – is merely conjecture. We shouldn’t be basing educational claims on conjecture.
You can follow my AskForEvidence request here if you’re interested, and I’ll be updating on my blog as the request progresses.
As I was writing this post I saw that Mr Belfield has made an unreserved apology to people who were offended by his letter. He modified his position somewhat by stating that “If all teachers had to not only speak Welsh, but had to teach through the medium of Welsh, then the pool of teachers available to work in Welsh schools will dramatically be reduced, and high quality academics will not necessarily be able to guide/teach our Welsh children.” (Williams 2015b). This is a not unreasonable position to adopt, and further study to determine the Welsh language proficiency of teachers in the Welsh system would be warranted to to assess whether it is defensible.
The baying crowd on social media has forced this headteacher to apologise for offence he has caused. If people are genuinely offended by the personal opinions of a private school headteacher, then I guess that’s their prerogative. For me the bigger offence is to not take account of the evidence when commentating on approaches to education.
AskForEvidence (2011) Ask For Evidence. Available online at http://askforevidence.org/about [Accessed 15.05.2015]
Williams K (2015a) ‘Forcing pupils to learn Welsh will keep them weaker than English counterparts’ Private school head causes outcry with language claim. Wales Online available online at http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/forcing-pupils-learn-welsh-keep-9256782 [Accessed 15.05.2015]
Williams K (2015b) Unreserved apology from Ruthin private school head who sparked Welsh language row. Wales Online. Available online at http://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north-wales-news/unreserved-apology-ruthin-private-school-9257760 [Accessed 15.05.2015]
Radio 4 have just broadcast a series of talking heads from five polyglots describing their experiences as learners and users of English as an additional language.
From an MP in the UK parliament who started life in deepest rural Bavaria, to a Russian novelist who works now for the BBC World Service, the stories provide a fascinating insight into the world of bilingualism.
Definitely a recommended listen for those interested in peering through a window on to the world of our students.
All five episodes are available to listen to until May 2014 at the BBC website here.
The guardian has published a short piece about the frustration felt by a Year 9 history teacher when confronted with otherwise academically proficient students’ lack of finesse in their written work:
My year 9 class are typical of many classes I’ve taught over the nine years of my teaching career; enthusiastic, bright, of limitless academic potential. But when it came to marking their written work I would be left tearing my hair out at their inability to express their understanding clearly.
It will come as no surprise to those familiar with the principles of teaching of ELLs (especially colleagues who have done the TESMC or ESLEL courses) that students must be given opportunities to bridge the gap between talk-like language and written-like language on the register continuum. It is great to see the value of these learning principles being acknowledged for E1L learners too, and reflects the field’s long held and demonstrable* assertion that good EAL teaching raises attainment for all learners.
The author describes the seeming dissonance in teaching English in a History lesson, and counters well:
“Why are we doing English in history, sir?” came the question as I asked my year 9 history class what kind of word disarmament was. Having anticipated this kind of reaction I had an answer prepared: “Do we only use language in English lessons?”
He also remarks on the oft voiced concern that teaching language comes at the cost of curriculum content. One might argue that without the language skills to effectively communicate content knowledge, then the possession of that knowledge is of questionable value. But the author goes further and demonstrates that in fact the language is used in the service of learning the curriculum content, and as such each is strengthened by the other.
Read the full article on the Guardian website here.
* see for example Eschevaria, J 2012
More from Michael Rosen on teaching grammar. In this post he describes a novel approach to having children explore, play with, and learn about how we construct meaning using words and what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
Give it a go and let us know how you get on in the comments section.
Michael Rosen, on his blog, has started to post an interesting series of discussions on the teaching of grammar. Grammar teaching is a perennial concern amongst our learners, their parents and their teachers. Rosen’s motivation to blog about grammar is in part due to the grammar tests shortly to be introduced in British schools (and he has pretty string views on the appropriateness of such tests). He hi-lights why grammar teaching is such a tricky area, for example:
One of the reasons why grammar is difficult and hard for all of us, but especially for children is that the moment you come up with a ‘rule’ or fixed shape or pattern of how language should be, and the moment we come up with descriptions for what’s going on, we run into problems: there are exceptions to the rule, or the description just seems to confuse.
And he offers interesting meditations on the whole business. Something that struck me as noteworthy is that native speakers nail the rules of grammar (i.e. use them unconsciously and with fluency) by the time they are 5 years old, before many even start school and formal grammar lessons! Needless to say this won’t be the same for our children, but it does raise an interesting point about how children learn grammar.
The first in the series is here.
Over the break I came across an interesting blog from bi-lingual booksellers Language Lizard. It’s worth exploring for ideas of how to support bilingual children in the classroom.
One article that particularly caught my eye was on using music, and particularly singing, to support langauge development.
Primary school teachers know how much children love a good sing-a-long and have used nursery rhymes and childrens songs to help teach all sorts of things from phoncs to maths to science and back again. Unsurprisingly they work just as well for ELLs as for first langauge speakers of English.
The article describes six tips for using music in the classroom. Have a look here and see if you could apply any of them in your classroom.