Balancing English with Welsh medium education

Rodney Berman says the First Minister’s decision to oppose Cardiff Council’s proposals for schools reorganisation in Canton is a ‘game-changer’

The Welsh Government’s policy requiring local authorities to take action to remove surplus places in schools has been in place now for some years. Viewed objectively it is difficult to disagree with the rationale. Surplus places cost money that could otherwise be spent directly funding the teaching of children. Nobody could sensibly argue it is right to waste millions of pounds a year funding empty desks that are not needed.

This is the first of four articles on the Cardiff schools row that we will publish on ClickonWales in the run-up to the IWA’s event on The Future of Cardiff’s Schools.  The event will be addressed by Chris Jones, Cardiff’s Head of Schools and Lifelong Learning, and Chris Llewellyn, WLGA Head of Education, at the Millennium Centre next Tuesday evening. To attend this event click here. Tomorrow we will publish an article by Peter Fox, Conservative Leader of Monmouthshire County Council and the WLGA’s education spokesperson. On Monday we will publish a contribution by Leanne Wood, Plaid List AM for South Wales Central. On Tuesday we will publish the views of former First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, AM for Cardiff West.

The former First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, outlined the extent of the situation quite clearly during an Assembly plenary session on November 3, 2009:

“We have a problem with surplus school places, and if we do not do something about it, it will reach 20 per cent. There will always be surplus school places but there should not ever be more than 10 per cent, so we need to take action to ensure that the problem is addressed. We probably need to see a reduction from 1,500 primary schools to 1,350, and we probably need to see a reduction from 220 secondary schools to 200.”

The message is straightforward. The proportion of places in Welsh schools that is surplus needs to be reduced to no more than 10 per cent of the total places available. This is going to mean a significant reduction in the number of primary and secondary schools in Wales. The policy is quite clear – schools need to close.

Further to this, the Welsh Government announced a new strategy for the provision of Welsh-medium education last year, proposing for the first time that targets for such provision would need to be agreed with local authorities. Launching the strategy, the then Education Minister Jane Hutt said:

“I want to make certain that there is access to Welsh-medium education in all parts of Wales for those who choose it for their children.”

So, the overall message is that Welsh councils are required to remove surplus school places (which means that schools will have to close) and that Welsh-medium schooling needs to be provided to match local demand.

It is in this context that a decision in May by the current First Minister, Carwyn Jones  to block Cardiff Council’s proposed reorganisation of primary education in the Canton area of the city sent shockwaves the length and breadth of Wales. The proposal itself was clearly in accord with Welsh Government policies in that it sought to remove surplus places in the English-medium sector and expand provision to match demand in the Welsh-medium sector.

For far too long local council leaders across Wales have despaired that as soon as they bring forward school reorganisation proposals in line with Welsh Government policies, local Labour Assembly Members will be found among those manning the barricades against. And in a number of cases those local Assembly Members have also been Labour ministers.

Whichever proposals are put forward there will always be people – usually those who are directly affected – who will argue vociferously that those proposals are wrong, regardless of how carefully they have been thought through. Indeed, I have received countless letters over the years from parents of children at affected schools who tell me that while they fully accept schools have to close to stop £3m a year being wasted on more than 8,000 surplus places in Cardiff’s schools, we have got it wrong in the choice we are making regarding particular schools. But, of course, if we had proposed a different school should close, another group of parents would be writing to complain.

However, in moving the process forward in recent years, we have always taken heart from the belief that what we have been doing has been fully in accord with Welsh Government policies, and that those setting the policies must be honour-bound to judge our proposals fairly against them. It is because of this that the First Minister’s decision on Cardiff Council’s proposals for schools in Canton is a ‘game-changer’. Why should a proposal that reflects the Government’s policies on removing surplus places and expanding Welsh-medium provision to match demand not have been approved, given that it ticks all the boxes put in front of us?

The First Minister’s decision makes little sense until you take into consideration the fact that throughout the process of the last few years, local Labour representatives have fought the proposal tooth and nail in what could be perceived as a wholly hypocritical campaign flying in the face of policies their own party has put in place. Indeed, the local Labour Assembly Member in this case is none other than Rhodri Morgan himself. While he was still First Minister he attended a protest meeting at the English-medium primary school proposed for closure, telling parents:

“I can see from the amount of people here, you’ve not come for a tickling contest … and there’s strong opposition to the proposals. It’s the job of me, as your AM, to progress that case and I will do that to the best of my ability.”

So, with his successor as First Minister rejecting the proposals more than two years later, I cannot help but wonder if the whole thing has been some sort of set-up in a desperate move designed to piggy-back on a Labour campaign simply in order to benefit the local electoral fortunes of the Labour Party.

You are told to remove surplus places and you do what you are told to do, accepting the fact that you are not making yourself popular with a particular school community in the process. Then you are kept waiting an inordinate amount of time for a judgement to be reached, only to ultimately learn that the First Minister has suddenly found a fundamental flaw in your proposal that the Welsh Government has not previously advised you of and that he is therefore rejecting it.

Of course, some might say that I would say that to deflect from the fact that the proposal was ultimately rejected. However, closer examination of the decision letter throws up some remarkable inconsistencies that simply add weight to the suggestion that this is a decision designed for party political gain rather than one taken on merit. There are three fundamental questions that Labour ministers must answer:

1) Why did the decision make much of the fact that the proposal might lead to English-medium provision having to be provided over a split site during a transition period which might last a few years, but raised no concern whatsoever that Welsh-medium provision in the area is already being delivered over a split site and this could continue to be the case for some time, if an alternative proposal now has to be developed?

2) Why did the decision make issue of the fact that the proposed site for English-medium provision may be deficient in terms of the amount of space provided (something not all that unusual in older, inner-city school sites) and that this could affect the quality of education provided, but then go on to state that the current lack of sufficient accommodation for Welsh-medium provision would not necessarily affect the standard of education provided by the Welsh-medium school if this situation had to continue?

3) Why did the Education Minister, Leighton Andrews, not make the decision himself, as would normally be the case? Is there truth in the rumour that he refused to be party to turning down the council’s proposal? And if that’s not the case, will he publicly state that he fully supports the First Minister’s decision?

Questions have been raised about the First Minister’s decision in a number of quarters. The Welsh Local Government Association described it as “retrograde and questionable”, suggesting that it “exposes the yawning gap between national rhetoric and local reality on the issue of surplus school places”. Meanwhile, the Association of Directors of Education in Wales has said that it “flies in the face of the need to continue to raise standards, reduce surplus places and meet the targets in the recently published Welsh-medium education strategy, One Wales and the 21st Century Schools initiative.”

In all of this we must not lose sight of the children whose education is being affected – whether those currently in badly over-crowded conditions in the Welsh-medium sector, or those in the English-medium sector whose teaching is being deprived of the level of funding it deserves – while money continues to be wasted on providing more school places than we need. Both sectors lose out while no solution is able to be progressed.

In the immediate wake of this decision, there was a growing feeling that the First Minister’s judgment on the proposal for Canton schools had completely undermined the whole school reorganisation process. As a result all local authorities would now be more and more reluctant to grasp a nettle that frankly needs be grasped if we are going to ensure that best use is made of limited to resources in order to provide the best quality education in the best quality surroundings for generations of children to come.

At the stroke of a pen, the First Minister appeared to have rewritten the ground rules for schools reorganisation, taking away any assurance that may have previously existed that proposals from local authorities would always be judged purely on their educational merits. This is essentially turning the future of children’s education in Wales into nothing less than a massive political football. Some media coverage even suggested that the decision had rocked the foundations of Labour’s coalition in the Assembly with Plaid Cymru. My call for the whole schools reorganisation process to be reviewed was subsequently echoed in the statements from both the Welsh Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Education in Wales.

Some of those concerns have been somewhat lessened since by a subsequent announcement from Leighton Andrews that the decision-making process for schools reorganisation proposals in Wales is indeed to be substantially changed in the coming year. He has announced that in future in the majority of cases local authorities will be able to determine such proposals themselves and that only in rare circumstances will Welsh Ministers reserve the right to call in decisions for determination.

To my mind, this just serves to re-emphasise my belief that the First Minister’s decision on the Canton proposals was one taken for party political reasons. After all, why else would he seek to over-rule Cardiff Council just when his Education Minister was on the verge of announcing that Welsh Ministers would shortly give up their right to over-rule local authorities on school organisation decisions?

In trying to find a way forward after the proposal was rejected, Cardiff Council has now come to a conclusion that the only way forward that might now be accepted is to consider the option of a new-build Welsh-medium primary school to serve the Canton area. This will of course be a much more costly solution – particularly so in the current financial climate.

A new-build Welsh-medium primary school will cost in the region of £9 million, so unless we can now secure a sizeable financial contribution from the Welsh Government we will be no further forward. I would hope, however, that Welsh Ministers will now accept there is a degree of onus on them to come up with the money we’ll need. The pupils attending the current Welsh-medium provision have been taught in unsuitably cramped accommodation for far too long and are crying out for something to be done. I just hope we can now put the party politics aside and put their needs first.

Rodney Berman is Liberal Democrat leader of Cardiff County Council

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