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:
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.