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Ysgol y Cwm in Trevelin and Welsh Language Teaching in Patagonia
Please see www.ysgolycwm.com
Children have been learning Welsh in Trevelin in the Andes ever since the first explorers arrived in the 1880s. Initially they were taught at home and through Sunday school and Chapel and then, in recent years, they were taught by Argentinean-born Welsh-speaking teachers who visited them in local state junior schools. Subsequently, children and adults would come to the house next to Capel Bethel (now named “Ysgol Gymraeg yr Andes”), originally constructed as the pastor’s home, to receive their Welsh lessons. There had never been a Welsh school in the Andes that could take children on a full time basis for the whole period of their primary education. In the late 1990s, the Welsh Government initiated “Cynllun Dysgu Cymraeg yn y Wladfa”, the partial funding of a Welsh language teaching programme for Patagonia, at which time a Welsh teacher was sent annually from Wales to the Andes for a 10 month teaching assignment.
Despite not teaching Welsh on a full time basis, Ysgol Gymraeg yr Andes made some significant achievements - it was the first school in Argentina to win a scholarship to send one of its pupils to Wales (the Welsh summer school in Llanbedr Pont Steffan); one of its alumni, now living in Wales, achieved such mastery of the Welsh language that she is now employed by the Welsh Assembly as a translator; it is the only school in Patagonia to have provided a winner of the prestigious "Learner of the Year" competition at the National Eisteddfod in Wales and it is the only school anywhere in the World to have provided two winners of the "Learner of the Year" competition at the National Eisteddfod in Wales (and neither of those pupils had any Welsh blood, just a passion for the language instilled by their teachers).
Until 2016, Ysgol Gymraeg yr Andes, and since then, Ysgol y Cwm, ran Welsh classes, both on its own premises and in other local schools, for kindergarten, primary, teens and adult learners and many of its pupils have won scholarships to the Welsh summer school at Cardiff University. As well as the Welsh language, its curriculum includes cultural content to prepare its students for the annual adult Eisteddfodau held in Trevelin and Trelew and the Youth Eisteddfod held in Gaiman. The school also supports a Welsh Folk Dancing group that represents Trevelin at festivals and which has won national youth festival prizes.
In 2013, the Welsh communities in Esquel and Trevelin set up a special commission, Pwyllgor yr Andes, to plan their priorities for the celebrations in 2015 which commemorated the 150th anniversary of the arrival in 1865 of the first Welsh colonists. The committee called for proposals and suggestions for projects to mark the 150th anniversary and, after weighing up many interesting ideas, decided that they should have one priority for 2015 and one priority only – the creation of a full-time nursery, infant and junior Welsh school in the Andes, a living memorial to those Welsh people who suffered so much hardship in settling in Patagonia all those years ago. And so Ysgol y Cwm was born.
A local Welsh architect offered his services to design the school so that it could be built in stages – a few classrooms at a time, in line with available funds, followed by a school hall that would double as the permanent Eisteddfod venue. The provincial government promised substantial funds and the Welsh Society in Trevelin, who owned the land where Ysgol Gymraeg yr Andes stood, offered to donate the land for the school and to sell adjoining plots of building land to raise some money to start the building process.
But things haven’t gone according to plan.
Inflation in Argentina jumped up to almost 40% per annum and the national and provincial governments were both replaced in a general election in October of 2015, losing to more conservative factions who wanted to cut spending at every turn. The costs of the first phase of building Ysgol y Cwm could now only be met by selling more land, but land investors had cold feet, preferring to wait and see how the new governments progressed. The provincial government withdrew its offer to provide funding and it was touch and go whether the school would open on time for the new school year in March 2016. At this point, with morale low in the Andes, friends in Wales stepped in with generous financial gifts. Some opened standing orders in the school’s favour and others dedicated funds from projects to help the school open on time. These included Jon Gower, who dedicated the sales proceeds of his book Gwalia Patagonia to the school, the Trevelin-Aberteifi Twinning Committee, John Watkin of Tregaron, who imported wine from Patagonia to sell in Wales for the benefit of the school, Jeremy Wood, in Esquel, who published a book about a long lost Patagonian Welsh manuscript, Huw and Cathy Pearce, who designed and sold calendars for the school and other friends too numerous to mention.
Eventually, almost everything was completed to allow the school to open with its new intake of young students. After a few months of operation, the school was inspected formally by provincial authorities and was awarded its official number and especially commended on the quality of the facilities and of its teaching and administrative personnel.
Two additional classrooms are now completed, which will allow the school to operate until the end of 2018 with no further major capital outlay. However, funds must still be raised for the next two phases of construction and the situation relating to funding from Wales is, especially following Brexit, beset with uncertainty. Sadly, the funding from the Welsh Government and British Council for the programme has been cut in real terms every year since its inception in the 1990s and Trevelin now only receives the part time support of a single teacher from Wales. At the time of writing, the funding of the programme is not guaranteed beyond 2017.