EDUCATION is seen today as being at the forefront of efforts to support Welsh – but there was a time when children could be beaten at school for simply speaking the native tongue.

But was it ever illegal to speak Welsh in schools?

That was a claim made during a recent Monmouthshire Council discussion on how education through Welsh, and for those learning the language, is provided in the county.

Speaking at a meeting in which claims were heard that some local children regarded Welsh lessons as “a waste of time”, cabinet member for education Cllr Martyn Groucutt (Labour, Lansdown), claimed the government had banned the language from schools in Victorian times.

He said: “The Blue Books scandal in the 19th Century (when) the English government system actually made it illegal in schools to speak (the) Welsh language and children who spoke Welsh in school were punished for doing so... that was probably the only language that they could speak with fluency.”

The Blue Books were an 1847 government-commissioned report into education in Wales – so named as all government reports are bound in blue covers.

According to The National Library of Wales, the three volume report “caused a furore and a great deal of agitation in Wales because of the arrogant remarks of the three non-Welsh speaking Anglican commissioners regarding the Welsh language, non-conformity and the morals of the Welsh people in general.”

The report became known as ‘Brad y Llyfrau Gleision’, or ‘Treachery of the Blue Books’ due to the negative connotations that have been associated with its impact and the language.

“It was at this time that ordinary Welsh people began to believe that they could only improve themselves socially through education and the ability to speak and communicate in English,” says the National Library.

It was also during the 19th Century that the infamous Welsh Not came into use in schools, which saw children heard speaking Welsh made to hold, or wear, a wooden sign. It would be passed to another child if they were heard speaking Welsh and the unfortunate pupil holding it at the end of the school day would receive a beating.

However though the cruel punishment was dished out by school masters, it was never a government-driven policy and there was no law either mandating its use – or which banned Welsh from being spoken.

Martin Johnes, professor of Welsh history at Swansea University, said it was important to understand the societal pressures of the time but said: “Speaking Welsh in schools has never been illegal.”

The academic, who is currently writing a history of the Welsh Not and language in 19th Century education, also said the Blue Books and the role of government have been misunderstood.

“Some children were punished for speaking Welsh because of a misguided belief that it would improve their skills in English.

“The drive for this came from individual teachers. It happened at a time when state control over teaching methods was fairly minimal and early in the 19th century non-existent.

“It was never government policy that children should be punished for speaking Welsh or that Welsh should be excluded from the classroom. However, it is fair to say that the government did nothing to support the teaching of Welsh as a subject in itself before the 1890s.”

On the Blue Books the professor said: “That education report actually argued that schools should use the Welsh language in order to better teach children English. The commissioners had no love or respect for Welsh but they correctly understood that the exclusion of Welsh from classrooms was making it very difficult for Welsh monoglot children to learn anything at all.”

Cllr Groucutt told the BBC Local Democracy Reporting Service that he had outlined the history, as he understood it, but was “happy” to be corrected.

The former secondary school teacher and education officer said: “I was speaking off the top of my head and it was what I was taught when I did my teacher training, in Bangor, in 1971.

“If anyone questions it I’m more than happy to say I’ve been corrected by the fourth estate and a professor of Welsh history, but the point remains that the Welsh language in schools was not encouraged at that point.”