Yesterday, the Vale of Glamorgan Council issued a press release about a proposed new solution to meeting the ever-increasing demand for Welsh-medium education in Barry.
Welsh-medium Gwaun y Nant and English-medium Oakfield currently share the same building, shown in the image below. The council had floated the idea of closing Oakfield and two small schools in the rural Vale back in February this year, as I reported here. However there was a storm of outcry from the two rural schools, and the council quickly announced that they would not go ahead. As I explained in that post, it would be wrong to close the schools at Llanfair and Llancarfan, but it would be entirely justified to close Oakfield and allow Ysgol Gwaun y Nant to use the whole building.
It is worth repeating what I wrote at the time. Oakfield is in an urban location in Barry with no less than five other schools within easy walking distance of it: Cadoxton, Colcot, Gladstone, Holton and Jenner Park. Based on a capacity of seven times the Admission Number, all these schools have surplus places. These are the figures for statutory age children (i.e. excluding nursery provision) for 2012:
Cadoxton ... 413 capacity ... 331 on roll ... 82 surplus places (20%)
Colcot ... 406 capacity ... 237 on roll ... 169 surplus places (42%)
Gladstone ... 350 capacity ... 329 on roll ... 21 surplus places (6%)
Holton ... 525 capacity ... 344 on roll ... 181 surplus places (34%)
Jenner Park ... 273 capacity ... 199 on roll ... 74 surplus places (27%)
Total ... 1,967 capacity ... 1,440 on roll ... 527 surplus places (26%)
Oakfield ... 210 capacity ... 89 on roll ... 121 surplus places (58%)
This level of surplus places is clearly unsustainable and at least one of these schools needs to close, even allowing for future population growth. In such a situation the only question is which.
Oakfield is an obvious choice for three reasons. First, it is not a good school. It's inspection report from Estyn is terrible, classed as "unsatisfactory" on every key question. This is as bad as it can be. So if we put any weight behind the idea that we should not close schools that perform well, it stands to reason that those which perform badly should be first in line to be closed ... providing that there are other, better schools in the same area with enough surplus places. The two closest alternatives, Colcot and Jenner Park, are only a few hundred metres away. So no family will be inconvenienced by the closure.
Second, Oakfield has by far the greatest percentage of surplus places and is now more than half empty. The unpopularity of the school must be linked to its poor performance, and parents are obviously voting with their feet. It is therefore pointless to keep the school open for much longer.
The third reason for choosing to close Oakfield is that it shares the same building with Ysgol Gwaun y Nant. This Welsh-medium school is rated Grade 1 by Estyn on every key question, and is understandably growing both on the strength of its good reputation and because of the general increase in demand for Welsh-medium education. It therefore makes perfect sense for Ysgol Gwaun y Nant to gradually expand into the space currently taken up by Oakfield Primary. Furthermore, there is no reason why this cannot be phased over a few years so as to minimize disruption to children already at Oakfield.
The council's new proposal is welcome to the extent that it will allow Gwaun y Nant to expand to fill the whole building. That's a complete no-brainer. But it is quite amazing that the council are considering spending more than £3.6m on a new building for Oakfield. There are already over 600 surplus places in English-medium schools in that part of Barry, and building a new one form entry school will increase that number by a further 210 to result in some 850 surplus places. This is because any increase in uptake for Welsh-medium education by enlarging Gwaun y Nant will be matched by a corresponding decrease in the demand for English-medium education.
It is the economics of the madhouse. These huge numbers of surplus spaces cost money, yet the council is proposing capital expenditure of over £3.6m in an exercise that will further increase the amount of revenue expenditure required by having to maintain even more surplus places than they already have. In times of economic hardship this is a grossly irresponsible use of money that could be spent on other things.
I have no objection to spending money on new school buildings, providing such building work is part of a programme to replace older, less suitable and more expensive to maintain school buildings elsewhere. So any proposal that the Vale of Glamorgan Council puts forward for consultation needs to include an appraisal of their existing stock of school buildings with a view to reducing the number of surplus school places in this part of Barry. That will mean closing at least one of the English-medium schools.