HC Deb 20 June 2000 vol 352 cc28-35WH

12 noon

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I first heard of the Welsh school in London, Ysgol Gymraeg Llundain, when I arrived here as a new Member in 1997. Many right hon. and hon. Members have known and helped this Welsh school for many years. I am sorry that more of them cannot be here today because of the clash with the meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee, but I am grateful to have this opportunity to put its case. They have supported the school by lobbying and fundraising.

I first heard of the school when I jointly set up a Welsh language class here in the House of Commons for hon. Members who wanted to improve their Welsh. When we came here as new Members from Wales after the 1997 election we all felt an obligation to get to know the language of our country better. Our teacher was Glenys Roberts, who also taught at the Welsh language school in London, and she enlisted our help to keep this well established school going. Some of us visited the school in Willesden Green and children were shown around the House of Commons. It was then that I became a supporter of the school.

Ysgol Gymraeg Llundain is the only Welsh-medium school outside Wales and it has been providing a Welsh-medium education here in London for more than 40 years. It has been based nearly all that time in the vestry of Willesden Green Welsh chapel. The present crisis in the school was precipitated by the closure of the chapel last summer because of a dwindling congregation. I went to see the premises and saw how the once beautiful chapel had fallen into decline. The chapel had only five members remaining when it closed.

The chapel and the vestry have now been sold and the school must find alternative premises in four weeks' time. The new owners of the chapel allowed it to stay until the end of the summer term although the chapel has been empty for the last year. No suitable permanent premises have yet been found, although temporary premises may be available. Suitable long-term premises are the key issue for the school. It has had many funding crises in the past and has always managed to keep going. It has many supporters in Wales, including some international Welsh stars, so it has always been able to appeal to someone to enable it to keep going. During the 38 years that it was based in the chapel in Willesden Green it could always rely on the support of the chapel, but that has now gone.

I have secured this debate to seek some commitment from the Government to help in this crisis. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards is sympathetic towards us. She has been kind enough to meet me and other supporters from the Welsh group of MPs to discuss the issue. The school has 16 full-time pupils and 16 part-time pupils. The part-time pupils come on a Friday while attending schools in their local areas for the rest of the week. Some of the parents bring these children considerable distances to have the opportunity to keep up their own language. That is a fairly unusual arrangement, but it works.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. The Welsh Affairs Committee is currently examining social exclusion in Wales. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if a solution to the problem is not found soon, the children whom she mentioned will indeed be socially excluded in London, which cannot be right?

Ms Morgan

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to have the opportunity to learn through one's native language and that language bears heavily on social exclusion issues. The Welsh Affairs Committee showed that that applies in Wales.

In addition to full and part-time pupils, there are 12 nursery children and 12 in the mother and toddler group. The school is small and I realise that concerns are often expressed about such schools. However, anyone who visited it and saw at first hand the range of opportunities available to the children, the commitment of the parents and the community spirit in the school would be impressed and would realise that any disadvantages regarding size are easily outweighed by the advantages.

Some children return to Wales to continue their education in the Welsh medium. Some families live in London temporarily and their children will return to Wales. Others will go on to secondary schools in the London area. The school is technically an independent school because it is outside the state system, but it has a policy of never turning away a new pupil. Parents pay what they can and generally help in the running of the school, which has a tremendous community commitment.

The school receives no money from Brent education authority. It wanted to gain voluntary-aided status, but was told that one of the conditions of gaining that is that it should teach the English curriculum at key stage 1. Key stage 2 is not a problem, because the school teaches the English and Welsh curriculum at that stage. However, the school feels that it would defeat its entire purpose if key stage 1 did not follow the Welsh curriculum. The problem of teaching an English curriculum applies only to children between the ages of five and seven.

I appeal to the Government to do what they can to find a way through a technical and bureaucratic problem. My right hon. Friend the Minister wrote to me after a meeting a few months ago. She said: As the Department sees it, the school would have difficulties in demonstrating that it could deliver the core subject of English in the infant years through the medium of Welsh. We are, in effect, asking for the school to be treated in the same way as Welsh language schools are in Wales. English is taught at that stage of the curriculum and the children in Welsh language schools in Wales have a good knowledge of the English language and are able to progress in it.

Why is it so important that the school survives? The school in London is part of the general demand for Welsh language education in Wales. After the Education Act 1944, parents began to influence local education policies and the first bilingual school was established—largely as a result of parental pressure—in Llanelli in 1947. In the 1950s, demand for secondary education, nursery schools and play groups—Ysgolion meithrin—in the Welsh medium grew. The development of Welsh medium education has resulted from public demand and it has been a popular grass roots movement, particularly the play groups. These are not top-down, but grass roots, bottom-up developments that greatly influence the sort of education that people want in Wales.

Since I became a Member of Parliament I have opened three new nursery units in my constituency that teach in the Welsh medium. Local authorities generally cannot keep up with the demand in Wales for Welsh-medium education. My constituency contains Ysgol Glantaf, one of the largest Welsh-medium secondary schools in Wales. It is a successful school and its pupils regularly visit the House to discuss issues with me.

As in Welsh education, a similar growth has occurred in the status of the Welsh language. It has moved steadily forward since the Welsh Language Act 1967, which gave Welsh equal validity with English, albeit in a slightly grudging way. Since then, many developments have increased the status of the Welsh language in Wales.

As I said, the school in London is part of the demand for Welsh education that exists in Wales itself and it reflects the enthusiasm there for the Welsh language. The school has become a lifeline for families moving temporarily to London: the children can easily move back to Wales when they go to secondary schools or carry on with their education in London. There are half a million Welsh speakers in Wales and a proportion of them have inevitably been drawn to living in London. Despite a steady decline in the language between 1911 and 1981, by 1981 the number of Welsh speakers had stabilised and by 1991 an increase was visible, attributable, in part, to the growth of the playgroup movement and the grassroots revival of the language in Wales.

Today there is considerable enthusiasm for the Welsh language in Wales and many non-Welsh speaking Welsh people born in Wales, as well as English people who have moved to Wales, send their children to Welsh-medium schools. Parents often send their children to Welsh playgroups and nursery schools and it is common for mothers and fathers to learn the language with their children when they attend Welsh-medium playgroups.

London itself has an ancient Welsh community: the honourable Society of the Cymmrodorion is celebrating its 250th anniversary. A Welsh school was founded in Clerkenwell 300 years ago as a charity school for poor Welsh children in London. That school has developed and moved to Ashford, but its Welsh origins have been lost. It remains significant that 300 years ago, the Welsh in London were organising schools for Welsh children. Welsh people are, of course, some of the oldest communities of immigrants in London.

The establishment of the Welsh National Assembly has also increased awareness and pride in the Welsh national identity. Its proceedings are carried out bilingually. The only time that the Welsh language can be used by Members of Parliament is when the Welsh Grand Committee meets in Wales. Some of us are concerned about that restriction.

The growth of Welsh institutions and Welsh identity has been strongly supported by the different ethnic groups in Wales, who are aware of the importance of the preservation of language and culture. Many ethnic minority communities in Wales have helped to support the Welsh language and the establishment of the Welsh National Assembly. The Welsh Affairs Committee also found that it was important for young people to be given opportunities to discuss issues such as social exclusion in their own language.

I know that the Minister is sympathetic to our cause. I appeal to the various institutions to work together to bring about a funding solution. Before devolution, the Welsh Office agreed and committed support to the Welsh community in Patagonia, and the Welsh Assembly has also given a commitment to such support. If we can support the Welsh community in Patagonia, there must be a way of supporting a Welsh school in London.

The school has gone straight to the National Assembly with a funding proposal for its running costs. It awaits a reply. In the past, the Welsh language board helped the school. Surely the Government can take a lead in London to help overcome the problems with the curriculum so that the local authority can help with the building and grant voluntary-aided status to the school. It will not establish a dangerous precedent because there is only one Welsh-medium school outside Wales. The circumstances are unique. The school has kept going for so long because of the parents' and the Welsh community's commitment. Now is the ideal time to provide a lifeline and to boost the school and the commitment that it has been given for so many years. With the establishment of the National Assembly, we are all much more aware of Welsh identity and of the importance of language and cultural roots. Whatever we do, we must not sentimentalise Wales. People in other parts of the United Kingdom and abroad sometimes see Wales as a place whose residents dress up in local costume and eat Welsh cakes, and whose only industry is coal. Sadly, most of the coal mines have gone, but we have a vibrant, multicultural community of which the language is an important part. I hope that the Minister will help us in dealing with the problem and that we will succeed in establishing the Welsh school in London—Ysgol Gymraeg Llundain—on a permanent basis.

12.15 pm
The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) for securing the debate. I was pleased to meet her and other colleagues to discuss the matter, and I fully accept the reasons why hon. Members who represent Welsh constituencies are campaigning so hard to save the Welsh school in London. They support the school not only because it has a good tradition and an honourable history, but because it is part of their wish to ensure that everything possible is done to maintain Welsh culture, of which the Welsh language is a key part.

We explored possible avenues of support for the school at our meeting some five, six or seven weeks ago. It is fair to say that it was agreed that I might find it difficult to secure the routes that were discussed, whether they related to funding, relaxing the national curriculum rule or whatever else. Since our meeting, we have reconsidered the national curriculum and the rules for granting voluntary-aided or foundation status, and, as my hon. Friend said, approaches have been made to the Welsh Assembly. Having considered the three options, I am not optimistic that any of them will provide a way forward in the weeks that remain before the end of term. However, I should like to speak about those three options, explain any problems and comment on routes that might still be open, even at this late stage.

My hon. Friend was right to say that the school is independent in status. The two main routes of support that are open to me as a Minister are either to fund it directly as an independent school or to encourage it to seek entry into the maintained sector. I shall deal with the latter point first. It is still possible for the school to seek foundation or voluntary-aided status. The Government encourage schools to take that route from the independent sector to the maintained sector. Since the general election, we have admitted 11 schools from the independent sector to the maintained sector, many of which represent particular religious or ethnic minority groups. They range from Muslim schools in Birmingham, where my own constituency is situated, to Seventh Day Adventist schools. There has been an honourable and rigorous debate about the criteria that should be used in granting schools access to the maintained sector. Such access secures funding, ensures that the schools receive revenue funding that is based on the number of students that they have and gives them access to capital funding. I hope that my hon. Friends will accept the need for criteria against which judgments can be made on whether a school can have access to the maintained sector.

Until now, the decision on whether a school should become part of the maintained sector has lain with the Secretary of State, who took the final decision on all the 11 cases in which we have so far acted. As my hon. Friend knows, that will not happen from now on. Apart from dealing with tail-end applications where the wish to enter the maintained sector was published before the change in arrangements, the decision on any future wish to become a maintained school from the independent sector will lie with the local school organisation committee, and with the schools adjudicator when there are disagreements. I want to assure my hon. Friend that, even at this late stage, it is still possible for a plan to be published to join the maintained sector. That plan would be discussed by the school organisation committee in Brent, where the school is situated, and, in the case of a disagreement, it would go to the schools adjudicator. It would be less than honest if I did not emphasise the criteria that the school organisation committee would have to consider in deciding whether the school could be admitted to the maintained sector. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North will accept that we need criteria and must be seen to administer the criteria as fairly as possible.

The school organisation committee would first need to consider whether more places were needed, although we would want to encourage the committee to embrace diversity and not to be fettered by a need for counting up places and bodies. However, we do not want to provide for too many surplus places. The committee would have to be assured that the funding currently received by Brent, both from revenue and capital, was sufficient to ensure the medium and long-term survival of the school, and that the school would teach the national curriculum.

As my hon. Friends know, most difficulties arise from the issue of teaching the national curriculum. I am delighted that the national curriculum now encourages the teaching of the Welsh language in Wales. If the national curriculum means anything, it means that there is an entitlement to a body of knowledge, skills and experiences in every school maintained by a local education authority. It is not bureaucratic to raise the objection that a school does not teach key stage 1 in English, because that goes to the heart of the national curriculum. As part of the standards agenda, the Government have shown great concern about the core subjects of English, maths and science, because we have been desperate to maintain an entitlement in relation to those core subjects, as well as flexibility in others. I emphasise that neither I nor the Secretary of State would take a long-term decision about whether English, a core subject of the national curriculum, could be taught at key stage 1 through the medium of Welsh.

Other schools that we have admitted to the maintained sector also want to teach in other languages. Many Muslim schools would like to teach in Urdu and many Jewish schools would like to teach in Hebrew. One of the sticking points has been that we have had to seek assurances that those schools would teach the national curriculum. Although a precedent would not be set, by allowing more schools to teach in Welsh, I ask hon. Members to accept that a precedent might be set that would lead other ethnic minority groups or groups of different faiths to ask why they cannot teach in other languages. Because of the entitlement for five to seven-year-olds to learn English as part of the national curriculum, I suspect that a school organisation committee might find such proposals difficult. If the London Welsh school is to persuade the local family of schools that it should join their number, it must address the issue of teaching English at key stage 1.

The second route would be for the Secretary of State to fund the school directly, because that power exists in law. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Sir J. Morris), a former Secretary of State for Wales, told me how the power to do that had been secured in previous legislation passed by a Labour Government. As hon. Members know, that element of the legislation has never been brought into force. I suspect that the present Secretary of State would be nervous about enacting that. My hon. Friend understands the politics of independent schools. Given our view of assisted places, direct funding for independent schools now comes only under the music and ballet scheme—MBS. I am not sure that I could say to the Secretary of State that the case was made for the money needed to make the school, which has 16 full-time students and 16 part-time students, the only independent school outside the MBS that we fund centrally.

The third route by which the London school could seek salvation would be if the Welsh Assembly used its powers to offer funding. The Assembly has that power—its functions for education lie within Wales but it has a power to support the promotion of Welsh outside Wales. It would legally be open to the Assembly to decide to offer funds for that purpose. That matter is clearly for the Assembly and we must observe what it wants to do.

I come to the debate with almost a sense of frustration. I understand that the school is important to the Welsh community in London, in terms not only of maintaining heritage but of ensuring an easy transition to learning in a Welsh school for children of families that move back to Wales. The Adjournment debate has focused my mind, as such debates do. The avenues considered so far have been seeking funding for an independent school or allowing a school that teaches in Welsh to join the family of schools in the London borough of Brent, which does not seem possible at this late stage.

I make this comment with trepidation because it is not for me to say—other communities in London and beyond value language and the cultural heritage of language. They want their children to learn and to do well in the education system in which they find themselves but want to ensure that there are opportunities for the children to continue to learn languages. In this case, the interest is in children learning in Welsh. I accept that there is a big difference between learning Welsh and studying the national curriculum in Welsh. If the community cannot secure the school's teaching the compulsory hours to the compulsory years, it might have to find another avenue or a different status so that the expertise in the community is preserved in the interests of the children.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

I speak as someone brought up in the Welsh community in London. I did not attend the London Welsh school but did attend one of the fine Welsh Sunday schools in London, which had a tremendous influence on me. Would it be possible for a minor amendment to be considered to the legislation governing the national curriculum to get round the anomaly?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody)

Order. Interventions must be brief.

Ms Morris

I have never known an amendment to the national curriculum that was minor. That is a real problem. I understand what my hon. Friend says—with his point about learning at Sunday schools, he put more bluntly and concisely the point that I was trying to make. The Government would be against removing the obligation on all schools in the English system to teach the core subjects of English, maths and science. We have done so much on the standards agenda in the three years since the election to ensure that every child in a school maintained by an English local education authority is fluent in English and has mastered the basic skills. Once we start to make an exception—

Mrs. Betty Williams


Ms Morris

I cannot give way because I must sit down shortly.

Once we start making an exception and saying that children do not need to learn English as a core subject, we open up the floodgate to other people wanting to do the same.

I understand where my hon. Friends come from and the heritage of the institution that they seek to save. I know that time is running out if the school is to continue in its present state. We will wait to see what the National Assembly decides, but if that fails, I very much hope that a different legal route can be found, other than a formal school, by which the expertise and the traditions of those Welsh schools can be preserved for the children of future generations.