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The complexity of developing Welsh culture and national identity

The complexity of developing Welsh culture and national identity – A Headteacher’s perspective

Defining culture and national identity in a concise format that enables the new curriculum to be delivered is a challenge facing all schools. The Academy Associates from cohort 2 were asked to consider the question “What is the role of educational leadership in realising a Welsh identity of vibrant culture and a thriving Welsh language?”

After nine months of extensive research and discussion, the complexity and scale of this task are now even more apparent.

This blog is my reflection on the work undertaken on a research visit to Ontario, Canada in January 2020. A group of six Academy Associates from cohort 2 visited Canada to explore and understand a comparative bilingual education system. Each Academy Associate had a specific brief such as to research leadership, accountability etc. In this blog, I refer to my specific areas of focus; culture and identity. The research findings from all of the Academy Associates research visits will be presented in the published cohort 2s final commission report.

In the following text I have tried to capture my own perceptions and thoughts about Welsh culture and identity and reflect upon my own personal journey and experience to date. Wales is a small country with a strong and rich culture which has developed over time with a diverse population and influences from many origins. Individuals and communities have contributed to different parts of this culture. The sum of the whole in this case being much greater than the parts. No two people have developed or maintained the same facets of Welsh culture. However their combined contribution and influence define the land we share.

Citizenship is accompanied by a responsibility to both maintain our traditional culture and also to continuously develop and grow the diverse aspects of our national identity. Active maintenance and development will be necessary to re-build areas of culture that are in danger of being lost and to shape our future cultural direction. The development of the new Welsh curriculum is an excellent example of this purposeful development. The establishment of Welsh language schools appear to be an excellent example of an initiative to preserve and grow this identity.

The points below are a summary of information collected from our research visit to Canada and are framed to initiate debate which will hopefully assist organisations to define their own vision for the new curriculum.

Ottawa, Canada 27th January 2020 – 2nd February 2020
Research brief – Culture and Identity

Here are ten areas to discuss and consider when introducing guidelines regarding the development of leadership to cultivate a vibrant Welsh culture and thriving Welsh language.

1. Individual identity is fluid. It is not clearly defined nor static. It develops with time and varies greatly from person to person and place to place; above all, it is a complex result of influences and experiences.

2. How has Welsh identity changed, and can we predict what it will look like in the future? Identity and culture is more than just a language, but a way of life and a strong feeling of belonging. Cultural identity is much greater than any individual’s own views. To feel part of this culture, individuals must have opportunities to contribute to its development and growth.

3. How do policy makers ensure that all residents have an opportunity to be part of the culture of Wales? Pluralism promotes and protects culture and develops the concept of reciprocity: it is always a work in progress. Part of the strength of a forward thinking inclusive, tolerant country is a recognition “that if the answer is too simple then it is potentially divisive”.

4. How do we ensure the guidance provided is inclusive and relevant to all who live in Wales? There is a need to identify the diversity within oneself, to recognise fully the complexity in others. Simple definitions of identity are difficult because a nation’s population is built from a complex mix, this includes gender, religion, sexuality, education, age, disability etc.

5. How do we support individuals to develop their own identity within a Welsh context? Language sits as a central indicator of cultural identity; it is as powerful as race and religion in creating a sense of belonging. With globalisation, the risk to minority languages is real. Assimilation to dominant languages used by the majority is a threat to the existence of minority languages. Where historic policy has discriminated against the use of native languages, this adds complexity and fuels a feeling of injustice.

6. Language acts as a keystone in the maintenance of national Welsh identity. How is it to be maintained and strengthened? Nations have an underlying set of values which are shaped through cultural activity. Pluralism promotes the commonality of these values and is underpinned by United Nations Human Rights policies. These are used as the reference point in law. National identity is to recognise multiple identities within the country’s culture. It is necessary to understand where a country has come from to understand how to successfully move it forward and adapt to future opportunities and challenges.

7. What are future generations going to need to learn about both the history and future aspirations of Wales, in the context of a culturally active and informed society? There is a risk that cultural policy making may sit within a narrow remit as the population of a country becomes diverse. The understanding of democratic principles is paramount if a nation’s vision is to be realised and ensure everyone has a voice. Leaders need to ask the difficult questions, dream big and have the space and scope to develop an effective set of policies and a culture that reflects a growing and expanding diversity of people.

8. How will leaders ensure that future cultural direction reflects the increasingly diverse population of Wales? Legislation to promote or protect identity, including language, both historic and current is controversial. Poor legislation generates polarisation of opinion and has long-term implications. In the worst-case scenario, it has been shown in Canada that it can create self-preservation and elitism within factions of the community. This can potentially be discriminatory and/or weaken the sense of cultural identity and belonging.

9. What is the impact of historic and present legislation throughout Wales? An individual’s access to learning the native language of their country must be equitable. This is critical to enable the building of a cultural and national identity.

10. How effective is present policy in ensuring all who live in Wales have access to learn Welsh and can use both the Welsh and English language? How the outside world perceives national identity is critical on many levels. This perception influences the relationships that exist between nations. How does the rest of the world perceive Welsh identity and culture and how can this perception be enhanced in the 21st Century?

Roger Guy, Academy Associate and Headteacher of Gilwern Primary School