Welsh parents wooed by questionable propaganda

Like a dog drawn back to a buried bone, I can’t help returning to the issue of Welsh-medium schools, and the various ways in which surveys and statistics are used to promote them. This is not a prejudice against the language but simply a desire to see its promotion handled fairly, in which I am assisted by an active but anonymous reader in Wales constantly on the look-out for misrepresentations.

On Wednesday the Western Mail reported a complaint by Michael Jones of Rhieni dros Addysg Cymru (Parents for Welsh-medium Education) that five councils in Wales were “non-compliant” in meeting the need for schools that teach in Welsh. Mr Jones, a solicitor, called for ministerial intervention in Neath Port Talbot, Blaenau Gwent, Merthyr, Bridgend and Monmouthshire, all of which had fallen short, he said, either in providing schools or in conducting parent surveys, or both.

The Welsh Government has a target of a quarter of seven year-olds being taught in Welsh by 2015, and 30 per cent by 2020. While the first target is likely to be met, in Mr Jones’ view, the second will not be unless more Welsh-medium schools are opened. The issue is whether there is an unmet demand for such schools from parents, as opposed to the Welsh Government and promoters of the language such as Mr Jones.

Surveys are carried out fairly regularly by Welsh local authorities and are likely to increase under the School Standards and Organisation Bill, currently before the Welsh Assembly, which will require local authorities under some circumstances to measure parental demand for Welsh-medium education in their area. If so, then it would be wise for the assembly to lay down some rules for the conduct of such surveys, since more than one Straight Statistics reader has complained they are rigged to achieve the desired result.

Take, for example, a postal survey of parents of pre-school children carried out by Opinion Research Services for Powys County Council and published a year ago. (It is attached as a file attachment below). On its website ORS promises distinctive and rigorous research, reliable evidence and insights, honest advice and a relationship of trust and excellent value for money, so it places importance on the quality of its research.

My correspondent raised several questions about this particular piece of work. His principal objection was that the questionnaires were accompanied by a document that one-sidedly promotes Welsh-medium education (also attached below). It lists prominent Welsh speakers: Arsenal footballer Aaron Ramsey, singers Duffy, Cerys Matthews and Connie Fisher, and BBC anchorman Huw Edwards, but doesn’t mention any prominent and successful Welsh people who don’t speak the language.

It makes claims that those who are taught in Welsh achieve higher grades, but this is only true if results are uncorrected for social deprivation. It claims that choosing Welsh-medium education, parents “will ensure pupils will become completely bilingual” which is not borne out by examination results, and that learning Welsh won’t damage a child’s English, while in reality pupils in Welsh-medium schools underperform in English compared with those in English-medium schools.

Is it not likely that sending out this document with the questionnaire biased the results? Jonathan Lee, head of research at ORS, responded by acknowledging that the question raised important issues, and that in the many statutory consultations about policy initiatives it carries out all over the UK, “we are clear that any information that is provided should be carefully balanced and not leading.”

In this case, however, the position was more complicated, he said. Powys is already committed to more Welsh-medium education, and the survey was to discover the likely demand, not to consult on the policy. (The demand turned out, as far as I can see, to be roughly the same as the existing provision, but the response to the survey was rather low, at 28.7 per cent, so any conclusions are bound to be tentative.)

When asked what were the most important factors affecting parents’ choices of a primary school, the actual quality of the school was not included among the options. This is odd, because when parents were asked to cite other reasons that might influence them, many comments related to the quality of the school, with words such as “quality”, “reputation”, “standard”, “performance” and “results” amongst the words most often used.

ORS was not involved in the production of the leaflet, but admits that it needs to be cautious and to negotiate with clients what information they want to distribute along with the questionnaire.

Powys is less prepared to accept there may have been anything wrong. Its view is that the leaflet “demonstrates its commitment to the duty placed on it by the Welsh Government to promote access to statutory Welsh-medium education”, that the claims made were endorsed  by the then Welsh Language Board and there was no obligation to be balanced by including, for example, some successful English-speaking people from Wales. “It is illogical to suggest that a reference to a group sharing a particular characteristic is unfair unless a similar group sharing an alternative characteristic is also mentioned” says the council.

The Welsh Government is fully entitled to promote Welsh-medium education and set targets for local authorities. But it needs to be careful in claiming support for these policies from surveys that make no serious attempt to be unbiased and have low response rates. If it’s a campaign – as it clearly is – then it cannot at the same time be a detached piece of social research. The two don’t mix.

As for the councils condemned by Mr Jones, Merthyr said there was currently a surplus of places in Welsh-medium schools, and Monmouthshire that every child in the county who has expressed a wish for a Welsh-medium education has been accommodated. The other three were more guarded in their responses.