Demand follows supply in Welsh-medium education

Mark Drakeford says the capital is failing to meet the rising demand for new Welsh language schools

It’s sometimes easy to forget it, given its regularly disputatious history, but the story of Welsh-medium education in Cardiff is one of tremendous success. While what follows mostly concerns the latest manifestation of struggle and trouble, I think it is worth putting that context up-front and early.

When I first visited Glantaf, in 1979, it was to meet the headteacher of the English medium High School which still occupied the bulk of the site. Now, from less than a single secondary school, there will soon be three Ysgolion Uwchradd in the capital city, and the local authority’s plans for the future acknowledge “the need for a fourth Welsh-medium secondary provision”. At primary level, Cardiff Council’s latest take on demand for Welsh medium education suggests that having grown, in annual intake terms, from 348 in 1997 to 465 in 2007, the figure will rise again to 864 by 2015.

The challenge this represents, at a time of falling rolls overall, has changed very little since the time, a long while ago, when I chaired the then South Glamorgan County Council Welsh-Medium Education Group. Then, as a newly elected councillor, I was sent off to chair a series of public meetings at English-medium schools in Cardiff and Barry, consulting on proposals to create Welsh medium education on the same sites. The fragile ecology of change in almost any public service was as easily drawn to the surface then as it can be now.

Committed supporters of Welsh medium education believe that every step forward has to be wrung as a concession from a reluctant authority. Parents of existing English medium schools feel under threat from what they see as articulate and well-connected in-comers. My conclusion, at the time, was that there should be no resiling from the essential principle that any child presented for education through the medium of Welsh had a right to that education. Yet if that could not be delivered with at least the understanding of those who did not make such a choice then the long-term prospects for the language would be damaged.  A great deal of talking, explaining and sharing of perspectives – as well as some outstanding leadership from the headteachers concerned – led to the creation of Ysgol Treganna in 1987 and a new Welsh medium school in Barry.

It seemed to me, at the time, that planning for places in Welsh medium schools was fundamentally flawed. It followed then, as it largely continues to follow now, the model long developed for English medium education. This is a simple supply-follows-demand approach in which education planners assess the likely future demand for places in an area (looking, for example, at demographic changes and new house building) and then creates a supply to match it. It is one of the reasons why the Council continues to produce figures with such spurious accuracy as suggesting that 864 pupils will enter Welsh-medium education in 2015.

In my experience, in an area like Cardiff the sector operates in exactly the opposite fashion. Here demand follows supply, not the other way around. Parental demand assessed in advance of supply produces one figure. But once a supply, in the form of a new school, is created, then untapped, latent demand rises to the surface to overwhelm the number of new places on offer.

And that’s been the history of Welsh-medium provision in Cardiff. At its best our capital city is engaged in an energetic game of catch-up; at its worst sticking its finger in the educational dyke and watching the tide come washing past.

It’s also why I strongly endorse the latest plan for primary education in the greater Canton area. The first two attempts were, frankly, disastrous. Based on figures which the council has since abandoned completely, the plans threatened to alienate one set of parents, while only reluctantly satisfying another. First Minister Carwyn Jones came in for a great deal of criticism when he rejected the authority’s plan in the early summer of 2010, but he was following the only course open to him. He had in front of him advice from both the Welsh Government’s own educational experts, and from the independent inspectorate, Estyn, that the plans were fundamentally flawed. And, with such a rapid volte face on the part of Cardiff Council, they were quickly proved to be right.

The latest plan recognises that strongly rising demand for primary education in the greater Canton area means that this is one of the few parts of the city where surplus places are not the issue. None of the four existing English-medium primary schools can be shut and a substantial increase in the supply of Welsh-medium places is needed.  That, the Council now propose, should be met by increasing the intake at the existing Ysgol Pwll Coch, and relocating the hugely over-subscribed Ysgol Treganna to a new site at Sanatorium Road, built to take a three form entry with new nursery provision. Statutory consultation on the proposal is taking place this month when local support for it can be gauged.

So far, so good. But now comes the crunch. The Council may finally have arrived at the right plan, but now it has no money to make it happen. Instead, it has simply added the plans to the bid it has made for future funding from the 21st Century Schools Programme. Three key points need to be made about the Programme itself:

  • Firstly, and in a way which will come as no surprise, the Programme itself is under huge pressure from the massive cuts in capital expenditure which the coalition in Westminster has passed on to the Assembly in Wales. The total amount of capital expenditure available for all educational purposes in Wales (from nursery to university and everything in-between) is £173,353,000. Cardiff’s bid for its own schools alone is for £109,250,000.
  • Secondly the Programme is a Wales-wide initiative. Every single Council in Wales, each with urgent priorities of its own, will be making bids against whatever share of the £173 million is available for schools. If each one were to take the same approach as Cardiff, then bids across Wales would total around £1 billion.
  • Thirdly, decisions on allocating capital from the Programme will not be made by the Welsh Government. Instead, a joint committee, jointly chaired by the Education Minister and the Education spokesperson of the Welsh Local Government Association will discharge that responsibility. It will not be a matter of local councils handing the difficult decisions on to the Welsh Government. They will be equal partners in determining the outcomes.

Against that background, some serious questions have to be asked of Cardiff Council’s Strategic Document, especially as education in the greater Canton area is concerned. It refers, for example, to the need for investment at Fitzalan High School. With three children, each of whom completed the whole of their secondary education at that excellent school, I know very well how urgent that need has become. Yet, the document is scanty, to say the least, on how this it to be achieved. This is especially the case when set against the Council’s decision entirely to replace Llanedeyrn High School, a building of the same vintage as Fitzalan with investment in the new St Teilo’s School, transferred to the Llanederyn site already agreed at almost £27 million.

As far as Welsh-medium primary education is concerned, to be sure, the proposal is to be found in the local authority’s document. It is to be found on page 24 of 39 pages in my copy, sandwiched between proposals for the primary schools of St Patrick and St Cuthbert. By then, 11 other primary schools have been identified by name as in need of investment in the Fitzalan High School catchment area alone. By the time the text reaches the end of its ‘Band A’ (or most urgent) proposals, a further 25 primary schools have been added to the list.

I know that the Leader of the Council has reassured Treganna parents that resolving the future of Welsh medium education in Canton is his administration’s top priority. I agree with that analysis. Reading through the authority’s submission, it is difficult to see many (if any) other issues which need more urgent resolution.

However, the reader will look in vain to see any such indication in the formal document which the authority has now presented. And that is a serious omission. Verbal assurances in meetings with those most directly affected are simply that. The written submission is what decision-makers will have in front of them, and in that the proposals for Pwll Coch and Treganna are simply extra items on a very long and entirely undifferentiated wish list. When that approach is placed in the context of the known facts about the Programme, as set out above, its deeply flawed nature becomes apparent.

Still, it is not too late. My challenge to the local authority is to put its word processor where its mouth has been. Let it write to the joint committee charged with making spending decisions, making it clear that amongst its long list of potential investments, some are more urgent than others. Let it exercise the responsibility which it ought to have embraced already, to be upfront and open in identifying the City’s main educational needs in priority order. And, in doing so, let it treat the resolution of Welsh-medium education in the greater Canton area with the seriousness it deserves.

Mark Drakeford is Labour’s candidate in Cardiff West in the forthcoming National Assembly election.

6 thoughts on “Demand follows supply in Welsh-medium education

  1. The only reason that Cardiff Council are failing to meet demand on Welsh medium education is because Mark Drakeford’s Labour mates refused to pass the Council’s plans that would have expanded Welsh medium education in the west. What hypocrisy!

  2. The previous plan for Treganna actually followed the WAG policy to the letter and the Labour First Minister then chose to block it, because Mark’s Constituency party had been promised by Rhodri Morgan that Landsdowne would never close.
    For someone from Labour to claim the moral high ground over this whole debacle is frankly comical.
    A little more humility from all around over the Treganna issue and a combined effort to pass the current and now only solution, would be welcome by all involved.
    By the way Mark, you are on record as supporting bilingual schools rather than Welsh Medium. It is a surprise that you haven’t mentioned it here? I sincerely hope that you are prepared to support 100% the current solution and not follow the pattern of previous Labour policies on this issue, of giving verbal support and then pulling the rug out at the last minute.

  3. MD: “The Council may finally have arrived at the right plan, but now it has no money to make it happen. Instead, it has simply added the plans to the bid it has made for future funding from the 21st Century Schools Programme. ”

    erm, but isn’t that the whole blinking point?! Had there been sufficient money in the first place we wouldn’t have arrived at this situation. Had Cardiff not tried following WAG (Labour) guidelines then yes, they’d have built another school – wouldn’t we all like that?! Do you think local councillors want to lose votes by taking difficult decisions?!

    The Council knew there was no money about, the followed WAG guideline. There’s no point having a good plan if there’s no money to deliver it. The two plans sumbitted by Cardiff Council were not excellent nor the most desired outcome, they were the best that could be done in light of the lack of money.

    Now WAG (Labour) may give Cardiff a disproportionate amount of money to build one school whilst other counties in Wales have to close schools and amalgamate. Spending £10m of cash in tight supply may be what Labour believe is worth spending to win a council ward. So be it. But you can’t come up with a plan which has no money to make it happen or, likewise, criticise a council for trying the work within a budget which you yourself recognise isn’t there.

    What happens if WAG don’t release the money to build the new site? What happens then?

    This is playing-school politics.

  4. What happens if the Council’s plans don’t go through is quite simple. Two English medium schools will have to close in Cardiff: one in Canton and one in Grangetown – probably Radnor + one other. Otherwise the Council would run the risk of defaulting on its statutory obligation to provide education to all pupils in Cardiff – a quite astonishing scenario.

    So it is quite clearly in the best interests of EM schools in Cardiff to support the new Treganna proposal too.

  5. The problem is that because of all the politics that has been played with this issue, this is the only options now available. The overflow school is now bursting at the seams and unless this goes ahead, parents wanting WM education will be turned away, will have to travel across the city or will just give up.

  6. with the recognised poor performance lately of welsh schools has anyone with a brain considered which would improve results in wales, an english or bilingual education.(difficult i know with the WAG cancelling school performance tables)

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