Wrexham still haven't grasped the nettle

There is a story on the BBC website today about increasing the provision of Welsh-medium education in Wrexham.

     Cynghorwyr Wrecsam yn ystyried codi ysgol Gymraeg arall

The essence of the story is that the Council are tonight going to consider three options for increasing WM provision:

• building a new 1FE (210 place) school at Gwersyllt

• increasing capacity at Ysgol Plas Coch from 1FE to 2FE (420 places)

• building a new 1FE school at Gwersyllt and increasing capacity at Ysgol Plas Coch from 1FE to 1.5FE (315 places)

The detailed report for consideration, with full details of the options, is available here.

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Using figures from here, which are slightly out of date but which should be enough to see the big picture, there are at five WM primaries at present with a total of 877 pupils. There are 10,387 pupils in total, so the proportion in WM education is 8.44%. There are in total 2,809 surplus primary spaces, the vast majority of which are in EM schools.

To their great credit, Wrexham were one of the first Councils to conduct a survey parents of very young children to determine their preferences. This is a quote from the Council's report:

A survey of the future demand for Welsh language primary Education was carried out for the Council, and published by Opinion Research Services in October 2007.

This survey was focused on parents of children born between September 2005 and August 2006.

Included in the key results were that 36% of respondents were very or fairly likely to send their child to an existing Welsh-medium primary school, and that 44% would be very or fairly likely to send their children to a Welsh-medium school if it were within 2 miles of their home. 67% of respondents felt that their children would benefit from a Welsh-medium education, whilst 89% would like their children to speak Welsh. The distribution of respondents indicates areas where provision is required, particularly in the North West area of the County Borough which is currently not well served.

This means that the current WM provision needs to be at least four times, if not five times, greater than it is at present.

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My first reaction is to say that it's taken a long time for Wrexham to pull their finger out. It has taken them over two years to come up with these three options when, to be frank, they could have reached the conclusion within a few weeks or months of getting the report.

But worse, in the meantime parents who wanted their children to have a WM education ended up sending them to EM schools simply because there were no spaces available in nearby WM schools. Also parents are not able to get their children into WM nursery places, which then makes it all the more difficult for them to start at a WM primary ... even if their parents were prepared for them to travel miles to get there.

And even worse than that, if we read the Wrexham Leader's version of the story, we find that the Council's Chief Learning and Achievement Officer, John Davies, said:

In October we went out to public consultation with a wide range of options for having Welsh language education. We have now decided to consult more specifically on three. After that we will carry out a feasibility study on available sites and see what’s possible.

Once we have come up with an identified solution to this, we will come back to the executive board then use the information to make a bid to the Welsh Assembly Government for the project.

It could take at least another three months to carry out the feasibility study and then present a bid. The whole process could take up to three years.”

Wrexham Leader, 12 December 2009

So it will be another three years before anything happens!

Look at the figures. What if Wrexham do decide on Option 3? That will only mean an extra 210 places somewhere in Gwersyllt and an extra 105 places at Plas Coch. It will take the percentage of children in WM education to something like 11.5% ... still less than a third of what parents in Wrexham have said they want it to be! Why bother to do a survey and then not take its findings seriously?

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I don't think it takes any particular genius to work out what is going on.

• First, the council is just trying to drag things out as long as possible.

• But second, they are trying to shift the focus away from their own responsibility to provide WM places onto the Assembly government. They are, in effect, saying they'll only do it if the Assembly pays for it. They'll just sit on their hands until then.

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In the report, one of the other options on the table was to convert one or more English-medium schools into Welsh-medium schools. There are, after all, over 2,500 spaces sitting empty in the Council's EM schools. This is far too many and it means that some schools would need to be closed irrespective of the fact that aren't enough local places for those who want WM education.

It is not up to the Assembly government to give Wrexham the money to build brand new schools as the only way of solving the problem of lack of WM spaces. Sure, new schools need to be built because a lot of old school buildings are in poor condition ... but that is a different issue. The immediate priority is to make the best use of the buildings you've got. Wrexham could solve the problem much more easily and far more cheaply by converting a few EM schools to WM.

Yes, that is a tricky process, because it means parents will object to having to walk what is often only a few hundred yards further to the next nearest, not quite so empty, EM school. But in the end, after it's been referred to the Welsh Government for a final decision (as it always is) that's what has to happen. So why should Wrexham think that they should be exempt from doing the same as nearly every other local authority in Wales has had to do?

I'm sure Wrexham Council think that people should be grateful to them for taking one step closer to what might eventually turn out to be a new WM school. But I think it's gone way past that. The real question is why Wrexham are still not grasping the nettle.

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I don't want to criticize without trying to offer a solution. Perhaps Wrexham might learn a thing or two from the Vale of Glamorgan. As I mentioned here, they too have plans for building new schools to cope with the increase in demand for WM education. They know that it takes two or three years to plan for and build a new school. But in the meantime they are putting in place WM "starter schools" to cope with the immediate demand. In places like Cardiff, they have put starter streams in EM schools that have a high number of surplus places.

If Wrexham could do the same sort of thing, it would at least be a sign that they are starting to take their responsibilities to parents in their area seriously.

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4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for yet another fascinating, highly relevant and thoroughly researched post. As so often with "the language" it's an exciting and excrutiatingly frustrating experience at one and the same time. Plaid are in government in Wrecsam. It would be interesting to know how much influence they are having on policy. Is it that Plaid aren't doing enough/we wouldn't even be where we are without Plaid/real decisions are with the unelected council officials...I wonder.
Efrogwr

Marc Jones said...

Firstly, I should declare an interest as a Plaid councillor and a parent with one child in Ysgol Plas Coch, where there are currently 2 Portakabins to cope with demand.

As you say, Wrecsam Council was progressive enough to undertake a survey of demand. That was before Plaid was elected in 2008. Soon after, a panel considered various options and decided on Gwersyllt as a suitable location for a new school because there was a cluster of demand there. Conveniently, there was also a school that could be used as a site, although it is currently being used as a Pupil Referral Unit.
There was some opposition from a local Labour cllr who thinks that Welsh medium schools amount to apartheid, but he was in a minority.
There is no reason for this to stall and Plaid (along with others) has pushed for greater Welsh-medium provision to meet demand. Obviously we need to push the council officers harder, although Efrogwr should note that we are only 4 out of 51 cllrs.

DaiTwp said...

Who has the "teeth" to make sure that councils meet the demand for Welsh language education?
A number of councils either are about to or have surveyed the demand, but it's a pretty empty exercise if only token increases follow. As I understand if parents want a Welsh education for their children then the council must provide a place. However there are so many loopholes, that in practice it is easy for the council to get around this.
By the way, I was wondering if the author of the blog has any idea about whats happening re' Welsh language provision in Neath Port Talbot. As far as I understand they undertook one of these surveys but then refused to publish the results. It is woeful that the only Welsh Medium Secondry School (Ystalyfera) in the whole of NPT is in the far NE extreme of the county.

Plaid Gwersyllt said...

Thanks for a detailed blog and yes you are quite right, officers have been dragging their feet and were told that in no uncertain terms at yesterday's Executive Board. In fact the feasibility study won't be reported upon. Despite there being a strong political will amongst the coalition, officers don't seem to be getting the message who seem keener on bilingual education than Welsh Medium, probably because the background of the officers is in the English sector. The whole situation was slowed down by Hywyn Williams moving to Denbighshire and in fact nothing happened between March and October 2009. I agree something needs to be done and will be done. Aled expected the scholl to be ready for opening around the same time as the 2011 Eisteddfod.

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