Demand follows supply in Welsh-medium education

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

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

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.

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