Ysgol Penalltau

In the shadow of the old Penallta Colliery—almost literally, as we can see from the picture below—a new school has been built. It opened its door to children for the first time today, but it's had a bit of a chequered history.


Way back in 2003, Caerffili Council put forward plans which included building three new WM primary schools, one of which was at the old Penallta Colliery site.

The response was a lot of umming, ahhing and general grumpiness from a Welsh Government which wasn't too keen on co-operating with a council that was now Plaid-led, but at least made the grudging concession that more WM provision was probably going to be needed in the future.

Roll on a few years and a new housing development gets built as part of the colliery redevelopment, and with it a new school under a Section 106 agreement ... but still with the same old umming and ahhing about what sort of school it should be. The then Labour-run council (from 2004) had wanted it to be "bilingual" and managed to get the Welsh Government to agree to it, though without quite defining what that meant (it should be noted that bilingual is not the same as dual stream, which would be inappropriate for a one form entry school anyway). In the end, it turned out that what they had meant by "bilingual" was that "the school would essentially be predominantly English medium with significant use of Welsh." It was a con trick.

In May 2008, Labour lost control of Caerffili, and the new council asked the Assembly for permission to make the school (which would be ready for use in September 2008) fully WM. One of the things that had come out of the previous refusal to allow the new school to be WM was that surveys were conducted to establish parental preferences. These showed a strong and growing demand for WM education which, coupled with the growing number of surplus places in EM schools in the area, should have made the decision a complete no-brainer. But no, nothing so simple. Instead of accepting the obvious it was decided that the statutory procedures had to be gone through all over again, which made it impossible to open the school on the date planned. Eventually a decision was made at the end of February this year, and the school accepted its first pupils today ... after sitting empty for a whole year!

Now most people would say that this sort of ping-pong politics is not particularly edifying ... and I fully agree. Why else would I be telling the story? So let's step back and look at the bigger picture.


Welsh-medium education should be a matter of parental choice, not political pressure. The principle is straightforward: if parents want WM education for their children, it is up to the local authority to provide it. Simple.

However most councils in Wales do not do much to assess the demand for it. Instead they tend to rely on the preferences mechanism that exists for school admissions generally. The problem is that it only works for schools that already exist. There might be two or three EM schools within a mile or two of their home, so if the parents want a WM school their only choice would be to choose one that might be eight or ten miles away. Some parents will do that, but many others will opt for the convenience of a school that is within walking distance. The reticence to travel is then taken by the council to mean that the parents did not actually want WM education.

The only way round that problem is to ask parents of very young children whether they want a WM education, so that the council has time to act to provide it locally. Making such surveys compulsory is one of the key parts of the new Welsh-medium Education Strategy.

So let's look in detail at what Caerffili's survey found:

Caerphilly Local Authority has established an additional two Welsh medium primary schools since 1996 (Ysgol Bro Sannan in 2004 and Ysgol Gymraeg Cwm Derwen in 2008). Both these two schools have attracted pupils and had more nursery pupils on roll in September 2008 than the admission numbers of the schools. It has become evident that the demand for Welsh medium education in the Borough is rising. Pupil numbers at Welsh medium primary schools have increased from 1719 in 1996/97 to 2109 in 2008, an increase of 23%, with further increases forecast in the next 5 years.

At September 2007 nearly 13% of primary pupils in the unitary authority attended Welsh medium schools. In the Autumn of 2007 the Authority surveyed parents to seek their schooling preferences.

Academic Year of Birth ... Numbers wanting WM Education

2004/2005 ... 207 out of 948 = 21.8%
2005/2006 ... 222 out of 995 = 22.3%
2006/2007 ... 262 out of 963 = 27.2%

The responses relating to the Ysgol Bro Allta and Ysgol Gilfach Fargoed catchment areas in the vicinity of the new school reveal above average demand for Welsh medium education as follows:

Academic Year of Birth ... Numbers wanting WM Education

2004/2005 ... 40 out of 155 = 25.8%
2005/2006 ... 48 out of 183 = 26.2%
2006/2007 ... 58 out of 167 = 34.7%


The figures speak for themselves. Taking the Caerffili Council area as a whole, the 27.2% demand for WM education was more than twice as large as the then current provision of 13%.

The irony is that Caerffili is one of the better councils in SE Wales when it comes to WM provision (at least at primary level). This is a map showing the eleven WM primary schools they now have:


As two of these are new, we need to imagine another seven schools (to put things into perspective, Caerffili has over 60 EM primaries). Where will they be? Who is planning for them? So far as I know, the only advanced plans are for the new school at the old Bedwas Colliery to be WM. Though if anyone can let me know of any others, I'd be grateful.


So all in all, it's been a rather shabby episode; too many political games. But in the end—despite the opposition of one council administration and the procrastination of the Welsh Government—the sheer weight of numbers of local parents wanting their children to be educated in Welsh could not be ignored. That's cause for celebration!

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Anonymous said...

It's not helped that the civil servants and statiticians at the Assembly Government are either institutionally anti-Welsh or totally stupid.

In 40 years of WM education the Welsh Office then Assembly staticians and policy makers have never prepared for, or anticipated, the growth in WM education. They refuse to countenance it in any demographic or spatial survey. They concentrate solely on birth figures as children don't speak any languages (... or rather will be 'normal' and speak English).

The whole departments really should be sacked.

They then give totally insufficient 'advice' (prejudice) to Ministers who then waste another year or two before coming to any decision. In the meantime, because of lack of advanced work by these well-paid statiticians and policy makers at WAG, parents of both EM and WM are unhappy because the whole process breeds mistrust and concern about their children's education.

The Assembly Government (as well as many Labour-lead councils and politicians) really shouldn't be in a job. They can't (or rather they refuse) to ask basic questions, meet basic standards of planning and basically don't know the nature of the council or country who have to suffer from their ignorance and petty prejudice.

Anonymous said...

what a damned interesting and thoroughly well written blog. I have just come across it and will continue to read it going forward.
Well Done - keep it up!

MH said...

For the sake of fairness, I have to draw attention to something that might be misleading in the statistics I gave on the numbers wanting WM education. The figures are quoted correctly from the document I linked to, but it didn't state what percentage of parents had replied to the survey.

I only noticed this as I looked at Caerffili's WES for 2009-14 when doing some further research. The figures in section 17.6, page 47 show that only about half of parents returned the survey form. Also the figures are slightly different: for example the 27.2% of parents of children born in 2006/7 is 26.8% in the WES.

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