Easing the way for expansion of WM education

On Cymru'r Byd today there is an interesting piece on Carmarthenshire Council's decision to revise its plans for a school in Llanelli in order to meet the ever-growing parental demand for Welsh-medium education. It was in the local papers last week.

BBC, 12 May 2009
This is South Wales, 6 May 2009

Sir Gâr is in an odd position with regards WM education. Across the county about 60% of its primary school children go to WM schools, but that disguises that fact that in most of the county the figure is much higher, with a pocket in urban Llanelli where most education is EM - and it is here that the increase in demand has been most marked. Things have been lurching from crisis to crisis for the past few years (last year one school had 128 applications for only 60 places) and the only way to meet that demand has been to put more and more children in temporary classrooms.

The proposal is now to make the new Ffwrnais school a two form entry designated WM school, and attach a nursery. This has been on the cards for some time. But will building this school meet the increasing demand? The answer is almost certainly no. All it will do is provide permanent accommodation for children who are now being taught in portacabins. Of course this is welcome, but it doesn't really answer the long term need.

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I think there's a better answer. In this county many of the primary schools are community schools. These are generally small, and the medium of education reflects the existing community language which, in urban Llanelli, is usually English. For those parents who want their children to have a WM education, the option is to travel a bit further and go to a designated WM school.

But, as more and more parents opt to do this (and with the general demographic decline in the number of children) these community schools are attracting fewer and fewer pupils ... and are themselves threatened with closure or amalgamation as a result. A double whammy.

As we're seeing all over Wales, there is nothing more guaranteed to stir up resentment than closing schools. They are focal points of the community, and it is always a good thing to be able to walk to a local school only ten minutes away rather than have to travel a few miles to get to one of the designated WM schools.

The key to solving both problems must surely be to let some of these community schools turn themselves from EM to WM. This very rarely happens but, ironically, Ysgol Ffwrnais itself was one that did so a few years ago, and set a very good example of how things could work without disrupting communities.

Basically all that needs to happen is for the school to teach its next yearly intake in Welsh rather than English, and so on, so that in six years the transition will be complete. This can happen relatively easily in a place like Sir Gâr, because a high number of the teachers who teach in English can also speak Welsh. The school structure and ethos therefore remains intact, and if there are teachers who don't speak Welsh, they have at least five years in which to make an adjustment. The community is very likely to accept it, not least because even in urban Llanelli 29.69% of people speak Welsh (the average for Sir Gâr as a whole is 50.03%) ... and that was back in 2001.

In other words, I believe a new model for expanding WM education is necessary in this part of Wales. I'm not suggesting that every community school becomes WM, perhaps only a third or a half need to. I firmly believe that parents who want EM education for their children should have that choice, even though it might mean having to travel further to get it (which, after all, is only what happens now for many children in WM education).

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One of the big failures in planning for WM education up to now has been the failure of some local authorities to take the very simple step of surveying the demand for WM education among parents of very young children ... thus giving themselves a few years in which to respond to demand. For some inexplicable reason the Independent/Labour council in Sir Gâr refuse to do so. But in every authority that has (Newport, Wrexham, Swansea and Caerffili to date) the survey has shown that more parents want WM education than the authority had provided for.

One of the things that should be in tomorrow's WMES is a requirement for all local authorities to regularly make such surveys. But it is just part of what should be a more comprehensive and flexible way of responding to the ever-increasing parental demand for WM education. What we have to break away from is the current framework which dictates that the only way of getting more WM capacity is to either build a brand new WM school (which is expensive), or wait for an EM school to close because of surplus capacity and then move in (which often means that the WM school ends up in the wrong place) or to take the decision to close and take over an EM school (which causes unnecessary resentment, not to say anger, in local communities).
 

There is more background on the situation in Sir Gâr on the Syniadau Forum.

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