The story beneath another anti-Welsh headline

The Western Mail and its sister paper Wales on Sunday have a sorry record when it comes to reporting about the Welsh language, and they have made it yet worse with this story today:

     Autistic children banned from school canteen - because they
     do not speak Welsh

To start, some background information would probably be helpful. Brynglas Primary School was closed in July because it had an unsustainably large number of surplus places. The building was then taken over in September this year by Ysgol Bro Teyrnon, Newport's third Welsh-medium school, which had been temporarily housed at Maindee Primary School. I wrote about it here. It was probably not an ideal site for Ysgol Bro Teyrnon because it is to the north of the city and very close to Ysgol Ifor Hael in Bettws, but Welsh-medium education is growing so quickly that there was little choice but to locate it in the first building that became available.

However there is a small unit for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders on the same site. It is the newer building with the pitched roof to the left of the main building in the aerial image below, and the second image shows it as seen from street level. Rather than making it part of Ysgol Bro Teyrnon, Newport Council made the decision that the ASD unit would be run as a satellite of Maes Ebbw School, the existing special needs school in south west Newport.



Underneath Wales on Sunday's damning headline about autistic children being "banned" from the canteen, the facts of the story are rather different:

First, the children at the ASD unit were not banned from using the canteen by Ysgol Bro Teyrnon. That was a decision taken by the teaching staff of the ASD unit and Maes Ebbw School. Apparently they thought it would be confusing for children with ASD if the children they were mixing with were speaking a language they didn't understand.

Second, even though teachers at the ASD unit decided it was better for the children not to mix, there is nothing to stop the ASD unit pupils from using the Ysgol Bro Teyrnon's canteen at a different time. That proposal was made in the very first week of term.

Third, it seems that the head of Maes Ebbw School has written to the parents of children at the ASD unit asking them what they would prefer to do. If they disagree with the teachers' initial decision and want the children to mix with children speaking Welsh, there's no reason why they can't. If they want them to use the canteen at another time, there's no reason why they can't. If they want them to eat in the classroom there's no reason why they can't. The only proviso is that there needs to be agreement between parents and teachers at the ASD as to which of these three options is best, as it obviously wouldn't be practical to have some mixing, some using the canteen at another time, and some eating in class. Lack of agreement is what seems to have triggered this story.


It seems clear that the parents of seven children at the ASD unit are not happy, and nobody can blame them for that. But it would appear that their unhappiness is due to rather more than just their children's eating arrangements. Despite what the head of Maes Ebbw says, it is very hard to see how "being part of the Maes Ebbw family" is of any practical benefit to children in the ASD unit because Maes Ebbw is 5km away on the other side of the city. The arrangement is one of administrative convenience, not one that is designed to meet the educational needs of autistic children. The lack of opportunity for contact with other children is the root of the problem.

In educational terms, and subject of course to individual assessments and the level of disability, it is generally right for children in an ASD unit to have a good degree of contact with children in mainstream schools, and the very last thing anyone would want is for them to be isolated. Autism is isolating enough in itself without making things worse. The best way to deal with this is to have small ASD units attached to mainstream schools ... but they must obviously be attached to schools which have the same medium of instruction.


What has happened is that Newport's plans have been badly thought through, and create as many problems as they are designed to solve. As can be seen by reading the documents on this page, the council had planned to close the ASD unit at Brynglas and establish a new ASD school on the premises currently occupied by Gaer Infants, again in the south west of the city. But this would mean closing the current Gaer Infants School and moving the pupils to Gaer Junior School, which is obviously contentious. [Note: The decision to close Gaer Infants has now been confirmed. See comments for details.] The two buildings are shown below, with the infants school on the right.


But the next problem is that Gaer Infants is much too big for twelve autistic children, and the documentation makes it clear that the only way the plan would be viable would be for the new school to admit additional pupils with ASD from outside Newport. The fundamental flaw with this proposal is that it involves educating autistic children further away from their homes, as well as concentrating more of them into one building, which is the exact opposite of trying to integrate them as much as possible with children in mainstream schools.

There are plenty of English-medium schools in Newport with surplus places, and it should be possible to choose one, or maybe two, of them and remodel some of that surplus space to suit the additional requirements of autistic children. Those children would be educated closer to their homes, and doing things this way would actually safeguard the future of one or two English-medium schools which might otherwise have to close, which is a win-win situation.

However it would appear from the documentation that the amalgamation of Gaer Infants and Juniors is probably justified anyway on the grounds of rationalizing surplus places; and if that is the case I would suggest that a better use of the Gaer Infants building would be to establish a much-needed fourth Welsh-medium primary school in the south west of the city.

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Anonymous said...

MH - The proposal to amalgamate the Gaer schools was approved by the Welsh Ministers a few weeks back - and the decision wasn't really based on reducing surplus places. As to the future use of the infant site as a news special needs unit/school, I think the intention may be to educate more of Newport's children closer to home rather than attract children from elsewhere. That said, the details of any such proposal have yet to be published.

Anonymous said...

Forgot to mention in my post at 21:08, the reporting of the story in the Wales on Sunday was nothing short of disgraceful. I do not think I have ever felt more incensed by a newspaper article.

MH said...

Your comments somehow ended up on the previous post, so I've taken the liberty of reposting them here, Anon.

Thanks, I didn't know that the decision on Gaer Infants had already been made. I've just looked it up and the details are on this page. I'll have to read it before saying any more.

Welsh not British said...

Just four days after writing this on your post on the 20th "Perhaps Leighton might want to look into why the so called Welsh media are so quick to jump on a negative story but completely ignore a positive one?"

The FailsOnline start using autistic children as weapons against Cymraeg rather than reporting on an isolated failure at one school in one county.

Back in June it was revealed that only 1 in every 141 people in Wales buys that rag, I hope the next time they reveal their sales figures it's closer to 1 in 200.

Lionel said...

Last time I buy any of their papers. End of. Still don't buy the western mail, since the last bit of predjudice. Death to all their publications. Sad really, given that we've nothing to replace them. Online is the way forward

MH said...

I've had a quick read through the Gaer Infants and Junior decision letter and accompanying Statement of Information, Anon.

As I read it, reducing surplus capacity is one of the reasons for amalgamating both the infants and junior schools in the junior school building, but not the only or main reason. The main reason is that all-through provision is seen as better in educational terms. However this is what the SoI says about surplus places:

"The current capacity of Gaer Infants is 180 & Gaer Juniors 260 – a total of 440 places. The current number on roll in Gaer Infants is 145 and 174 in Gaer Juniors, a total of 319. Therefore, across the two schools, 27.5% of places are current surplus (20% in the infants and 33% in the juniors). Delivery of a 420 place school would allow for the forecast pupil numbers of 379 plus 10% surplus."

And also:

"The Junior School building is capable of managing the predicted school population, with some changes required in the use of some of the classrooms, the upgrading of all existing classrooms, the addition of a new three classroom Foundation Phase wing, disabled access improvements, additional car parking and vehicular access."

So for the cost of a new wing of three classrooms (for the modernization would probably have to be carried out anyway) the whole infants building becomes available for other uses.


The question is: What other uses? Interestingly, the SoI holds out the possibility of it being used for Welsh-medium purposes.

"The proposal will allow the vacant Infant School building to be utilised under the Council Asset Management Strategy. It is important to note the significant demand for additional places in both the Special School (ASD) and Welsh-medium sectors.

A stand-alone building adjacent to the Infant School—the Gaer Annexe—currently houses a multi-agency group. A review of all the Council assets is underway to establish the most efficient and effective use of its estate."

This is quite positive because, so far as I remember things, WM use had not been considered before. So I'm very glad it is now "on the table". There had been a proposal to build a new primary on WM school on Percoed Reen, some distance to the south of Newport close to Celtic Lakes. But it looks highly unlikely that the money will be found for it any time soon, and therefore the Gaer Infants building would be a good alternative location (and depending on demand, maybe both would be justified).

MH said...

I'll turn now to the report on establishing a new ASD school in the Gaer Infants building.

It is true that children with ASD require rather more space than other children. The two classrooms currently at the new Bro Teyrnon site accommodate only 12 children, and the report proposes that the Gaer Infants building would house 48-54 ASD pupils. But this is still very much more than the current provision required in Newport, so to me it looks like Newport are trying to fill up the space in the vacant building rather than meet their current ASD need. For it to be fully used, it would need to accommodate children from outside Newport.

So while it might be true that Gaer would be a more convenient location than Brynglas for the twelve children already in the unit, the children brought in from outside Newport would, by definition, have to travel further.

That's why I think it would be better to create one or two new small ASD units (or perhaps more, if these places are required) in existing English-medium schools that have surplus space. As an example, for I do not want to single out any school, Bro Teyrnon was originally set up at Maindee Primary because it had enough surplus space to accommodate it. There were 61 children in Bro Teyrnon in last year's Schools Census, so it would be very easy to use some of that space to create an ASD unit for 12 children. I guess the same would be true for at least half a dozen other schools in Newport.

That is why I would suggest it is better to create one or two (or even three) small ASD units attached to mainstream schools than create a stand-alone ASD school. If Newport were to do this, it would not only improve the integration of ASD pupils in a way that would be more beneficial to them, but it would also allow the Gaer Infants building to become a one form entry Welsh-medium school. Win-win.

Anonymous said...

MH - I agree that the local authority included surplus place reduction as one of the benefits of the proposal but the actual number of places involved was small - a reduction of 26 in total. The decision letter says that the Minister didn't consider surplus place reduction as a major feature of the proposal.

With regard to the future of the Gaer Infant School, I would be careful about reading too much into the comment in the decision letter about the demand for additional places in the Welsh medium sector. I think this is simply an illustration of other uses to which the building might be put rather than an actual option under consideration. It is the local authority not the Welsh Government who will determine the building's future.

Finally, in relation to the children who might attend a future ASD school at Gaer Infants, my understanding is that a significant number of ASD learners from Newport currently receive their education out of county - and at considerable expense. I think that the local authority sees the establishment of a ASD special school accommodating both the pupils from unit at Brynglas/Bro Teyrnon and the pupils who currently travel out of county as a means of saving money whilst at the same educating pupils closer to their home communities - but I don't know the any details such as the exact numbers involved etc . I would also point out that these are pupils with higher end needs for whom the scope for integration into the mainstream is limited. To my knowledge, the pupils at the Brynglas unit were never, for example, integrated into mainstream classes at the former English medium primary. For ASD pupils with lower end needs such integration is near universal.

MH said...

If it's true that autistic children living in Newport are being educated in units outside Newport then it would change the equation completely, Anon. Of course it would be better for them to be educated locally in Newport. All I would say is that I'd like to see the figures published ... as would you.

But the second question to ask is about the best way of educating children with ASD in Newport. I'll obviously bow to the expertise of the professionals in this field, but you seem to be saying that those with lower levels of disability would be better served by more integration with mainstream schools, and that certainly sounds right to me.

Yet you also say that the children in the Brynglas unit have greater levels of autism and therefore didn't integrate much with the mainstream school. If this is true, I have to say that I can't see what the current fuss is about or why the issue of isolation should have arisen. But, more importantly, it suggests to me that there is in fact no real need for a whole ASD school with places for about 50 children. Surely it would be better for everyone if those with greater needs were educated in, say, four small units in mainstream schools (so that they can share facilities like catering) as I suggested.

My point is about how best to manage the schools estate at a time when budgets are being squeezed. I take your point that it's up to Newport Council to decide this but, as I see it, four small units with about 12 children in each can be created at relatively modest cost simply by internal remodelling of the surplus space in existing schools. This would provide facilities for the same number of children, but free the Gaer Infants building to be used as a much needed WM school without having to spend £8m (or whatever) on a brand new building. That's got to be good value for money.

Anonymous said...

" Lack of agreement is what seems to have triggered this story." Can't agree with you on that. I'm from Newport and this story emanates from anti-Welsh rubbish and second rate journalism. Best Regards and please keep up the excellent blog.
Robert Tyler

MH said...

Thanks for the kind words, Robert.

What I meant was that the parents of seven of the children (including Damien Lane, Anil Karhadkar and Razaq Shakir, who were all quoted) obviously didn't agree with the teachers at the ASD unit that eating in the classroom was the best thing for their children. That's a perfectly reasonable thing for them to be concerned about.

The question is how that concern turned into the idea that they were being "banned" from the canteen, and were being "locked away" and "isolated".

I don't know the answer to that. Maybe it was bad communication, exacerbated by the fact that the headteacher newly responsible for the unit was on the other side of the city. But the grievance was very eagerly lapped up by the journalist concerned and then twisted into an anti-Welsh story. And I'm sure this was done with the full backing of his editors, for the Western Mail and Wales on Sunday have a track record of such behaviour. The paper needs to be condemned, but the concerns of the parents are perfectly reasonable.

MH said...

For the record, Simon Farrington, the editor of that edition of Wales on Sunday, wrote an opinion piece a week later in which he said he stood by the headline he put on the article.

One item of substance is that children from the ASD Unit had only eaten lunch in the unit for a short period, and were now eating in the canteen, but after the Bro Teyrnon children. This is certainly at odds with the original story, which presented a picture of them continuing to be "banned" from the canteen. And he tried to hide behind some ambiguous wording about which school, Bro Teyrnon or Maes Ebbw, felt it would be confusing for the children in the ASD Unit if both sets of children ate in the canteen at the same time.

It was also disingenuous for him to claim that, "the newly created Welsh school advocated a policy of 'children being encouraged to speak Welsh at all times, including break times'", as if this were something novel or unusual. That's what all Welsh-medium schools in the more Anglicized areas of Wales do.

MH said...

I've just read this story in the South Wales Argus, which adds some more information.

The formal questions to Bob Poole and his written answers are on this page. There are some interesting insights into Welsh-medium provision in Newport.

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