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Visit to the Basque Country: A reflection

Visit to the Basque Country: A reflection

In January 2020, a group of three second Cohort Associates huddled around an iPad in terminal 2 at Manchester Airport to watch the closing minutes of Liverpool v United.  It had already been a traumatic day full of cancelled trains and delayed flights, but as Liverpool won the game, our flight to Bilbao was finally ready to board, and our learning adventure was at last underway!

The purpose of our visit, along with 5 other staff and Associates from the Leadership Academy, who had already flown from Cardiff, was to explore the parallels between the way culture and language have been developed in schools in the Basque Country and here in Wales. The programme, organised by our host Jasone Aldekoa alongside the staff of Innovation Centre B06, was to prove varied, enlightening and thought provoking certainly helped us to see why the region now has 74% of schools teaching through the medium of Basque, compared to about 10% 30 years ago.

During the trip we visited a number of primary, secondary and ‘through’ schools, spoke to education officials in Bilbao and in the Innovation Centre, met with community representatives and spent an afternoon at a vocational catering college. We gained a real insight into how the region has developed its use of the Basque language in schools and developed an appreciation of the culture and history that gives the region its identity.

Historically, under 40 years of rule by General Franco, the country’s official language was Spanish and the Basque language was largely confined to ‘illicit’ ikastolas.  But following his death in November 1975 and during Spain’s subsequent transition to a democracy, many Basque activists and politicians returned to the country – creating a significant momentum for the re-emergence of their culture and language. Parental demand for access to Basque medium education, considered at the time to be of a higher standard, provided a simultaneous impetus for cultural development within education. This demand was supported through legislation in 1982 which gave “All citizens of the BAC the right to know and use both official languages, Basque and Spanish” and then again in 1993 when Basque and Spanish had to “be included in education programmes carried out in Basque public schools, so as to achieve genuine competence in both languages”​.

The transformation had begun, and it was supported with resources and an extensive retraining programme, during which teachers were enrolled in a three year, fully paid, sabbatical programme to learn the language. The impact of this programme over time has been significant. The majority of schools now deliver through the medium of Basque and the promotion of the language has also facilitated the development and re-emergence of their culture. This is also supported by a number of cultural experiences in schools, along similar lines to that provided by the Urdd, Eisteddfodau, St. David’s Day and so on.

The most significant reflection for me, though, was the difference in engagement with language and culture outside education. When speaking to young people about their experiences, we found a recurring theme that has, and will, colour the impact of cultural development across the nation. When we asked about their preferred language outside the classroom, the majority answered “Spanish”, but when we asked whether students felt Basque or Spanish, there was a resounding chorus of “Basque”! It is clear that although children learn the language and develop their cultural identity, the importance of the language in wider society, and opportunities to use it, is significantly diminished beyond the school gates.

This point was developed in our wider research, both in Wales and in the Basque Country.  Discussion with Aled Roberts (the Welsh Language Commissioner) confirmed his focus on ensuring opportunities for using the Welsh language are as prevalent in the work place, the home and across society as they are in schools. Joshua Fishman (1991) noted that “Educational measures in schools alone do not guarantee the continuity of their work. We cannot expect solutions that come only from education. Schools need the help of the family-neighbourhood-environment. The reversal of the threatened language shift cannot be done only with educational measures”. In addition, Iñaki Arruti (1993) explored the concept further in considering “Cooperation among local institutions” in which he shows diagrammatically the relative importance of creating opportunities to use the language in a variety of settings, to wider cultural development.

In all, we learnt a tremendous amount about the education system in the Basque country, but as I sit back and reflect on an interesting week, my main memory is that no matter how good we are at delivering and developing language in a particular educational setting, this is only the tip of a large iceberg as far as creating 1,000,000 Welsh speakers is concerned, or in terms of developing our wider national identity.

Ian Gerrard, Academy Associates & Headteacher at Ysgol Aberconwy