LESS TEACHERS LIKELY – PONTARDAWE

The new proposed primary school in Pontardawe may see kids walking up to 2 miles to school. With less teachers and possibly poorer Estyn reports. This is based on information that we have had from various sources including ESTYN and the Welsh Government figures.

We have attempted for over 2 weeks to ask Neath Port Talbot Council some basic questions on the proposed school. With no response, we have looked at their previous record instead. Whilst also looking at what school closures have meant to other local communities.

These are the questions which I sent to Neath Port Talbot Council.

How far is a child expected to walk to school before a free school bus is provided?

We obviously have no direct response from NPT. However this is a similar question to which local councillors Linet and Anthony brought up during the October meeting. Linet asked ‘how were parents going to walk a nursery aged child as far as the Cwmtawe site?’.

The Pontardawe councillor told me that the councils answer was that “We will find out during the consultation how much of an issue that is and to how many people?” Linet went on to say “However there was no suggestion as to WHAT they would do about it. Be assured Linet and Anthony will pursue this one with vigour!”

No Transport on Offer

Legally if you live less than 2 miles from your nearest suitable school (if you’re at primary school). Or less than three miles (if you’re at secondary school) based on the ‘shortest available route’, then the Local Authority doesn’t have to provide transport for you to get to school.

So, whether you live at the top of Alltwen, Ystalyfera side of Godre’r’graig or anywhere within the catchment area, the council will have no legal obligation to provide transport. A concern with some residents is that a bus may be provided initially but could be cut further down the line. There is shared concern about the impact this could have on nursery education too.

The Welsh Assembly Government have ploughed millions of pounds into foundation education and stressed the importance of it. Yet it is not compulsory. Would we see parents without transport walking their 3 or 4 year old up to 4 miles to school and back? or would we see a large demise in foundation numbers? The Welsh Schools’ Census Results shows that since the closure of smaller local schools in Wales the number of pupils aged under 5 has decreased in recent years.

Will a community impact assessment be made? Looking at the effect the school closures would have on each individual community? (Alltwen, Godrergraig, Ynysmeudwy)

I have no knowledge of there being one but we can look at other local communities who have lost schools. In Craig Cefn Parc the opposition to the school closure was substantial. The local MP, local Councillors and AMs stood with parents fighting to save their school. But it was to no prevail. I wonder whether their concerns were just, whether the community was affected by the closure as much as they feared? “100%” Councillor Brigitte Rowlands tells me. “The village isn’t the same since it has closed.”.

“If you speak to any of the villagers in Craig Cefn Parc it has had a detrimental impact on the village. If you speak to any resident who has lived here for a long time, then they all had an association to the school and made friends there. The community was based on that. The thought of young children going to a super school is not the way forward.”

Felindre was another school fighting closure at the same time. I asked Paul Northcote who is an independent councillor for Felindre whether the school closure effected the community there.

Less Families Move In

“Yeah, without doubt. It has taken the heart out of the community and it will take a long time to recover from it. Obviously, the kids go elsewhere. People used to meet at the school gate and have a chat, not having that aspect has impacted the community. The school was used as the village hall and playing fields. It is going to take a long time to get over it. We campaigned against it but nobody listened. It felt that the decision was made regardless of what we said.”

Carrie is landlady of the Shepherds country Inn in the village. She told me “The community spirit has been completely shattered. I have lived here all my life and the community feeling; well it is feeling less and less. We have not got the families in the village anymore. Other young families do not want to move here. People want to be able to walk their kids to school.”

“It is a small village, and the average age is increasing. I think we have 4 families now with school age children left. The school brought us a bit of happiness. You have not got the school Christmas concert, craft fayres and that community feel which they bring. With regards to the pub, we did staff Christmas lunches, craft fayres, Macmillan’s coffee mornings and we would get a lot of support from the school parents. The school harvest, we would all get involved with the school and chapel and we would get the kids coming into the pub to sing. It is a massive community let-down.”

There are genuine concerns that Ynysmeudwy could lose its shop without the passing school time trade. Alltwen Stores may be a concern too. Both shops report a drop in earnings over school holiday periods. Without passing trade, communities could lose their shops as well as their schools.

Has there been any quotes, plans or studies into improving the buildings of the current school sites?

NPT have put some vague figures into their proposals which I will get to later. But on October 21st Cllr Alun Llewelyn proposed an amendment to the joint Education and Cabinet committee. In simple terms, this would require the officers to go away and do more research as to whether it was possible to build a new school for Godre’r’graig and to keep the school in its village community. Plaid Cymru councillors approved the amendment, which was supported by independent councillors but defeated by Labour councillors on the committee.

There is a belief by some that Welsh Assembly money is only available for ‘new large schools’. I contacted the Education Department for Wales who confirmed that money was available for refurbishing current schools. “The 21st Century Schools and Education Programme provides funding both for new schools and extensions/ significant refurbishments…… In the case of schools it is the local authority which prioritises schemes in the area and has the responsibility of bringing forward business cases for investment for consideration by the Welsh Government.”

‘Right sized school in the right place’

A key aim of the 21st Century Schools programme is having the ‘right sized school in the right place’. I queried whether our current schools would be deemed as ‘small schools’. Kirsty Williams office responded with:- “Within the Audit Commission’s 1996 Report “Trading Places – The Supply and allocation of school places” small primary schools are identified as those with fewer than 90 pupils on roll. However, it would be for the local authority to consider whether the size of a school is appropriate for the area it serves.”

The Education Department of Wales also said “Some spare places are necessary to enable schools to cope with fluctuations in the number of pupils, but excessive numbers of unused places that could be removed mean that resources are tied up unproductively. A significant level of surplus provision is defined as 25% or more of a school’s capacity and at least 30 unfilled places.”

All three current schools have more than 90 pupils on their register. All three schools currently have less than 20% ‘surplus provision’ and appear healthy schools within Welsh Government guidelines. If the new school was opened today and all pupils in the 3 schools attended, there would be a 28% surplus. Above the 25% deemed as significant. It is difficult to see how NPT can view this as ‘the right sizes school in the right place’. Although their report states that 587 pupils will attend. 402 from the 3 closed schools but no details on where the 187 extra pupils come from. There are concerns it may be another school closue.

How much has each school (Llangiwg, Godre’r’graig & Alltwen) cost the council in maintenance costs over the last ten year?

I can’t find this figure and I have requested it from the council but I am led to believe that it isn’t very much.

The council’ proposal indicates that a study was carried out on all three schools in November 2018. With all schools being Grade C in condition and needing maintenance work requiring a combined fee of over £2 million in backlog maintenance and accessibility costs (according to this study).

I cannot find details of this study anywhere and have requested the studies from the council in a separate email but with no response. Governors within one school have told me that they have never seen such a study and know of no study every happening.

Within the councils proposal, with regards to maintaining current sites they say “Maintaining these schools on separate sites would lead to cost inefficiency and would mean that the potential benefits afforded by a new school build would not be realised. Increasing pupil numbers on one site by combining the three schools in a brand new purpose built facility would provide a far more effective use of public money”

Without access to this study and more details on it. It seems we only have the Councils word on huge parts of this.

All 3 schools have enjoyed ‘good’ assessments in their latest ESTYN report. What assurances can the council give that this would be improved?

Obviously, we have not received any assurances. So, again, all we can look at is the previous record of closing and building new schools.

In September 2013 Neath Port Talbot opened Awel Y Mor Primary School. This saw the closure of Glanymor and Tir Morfa Primary Schools. Since both schools have closed, Estyn reports are unavailable online but I requested them from Estyn and received glowing reports. Inspectors called both schools ‘good schools’ and declared ‘no important shortcomings’ in either school.

These schools closed to be replaced with Awel Y Mor. Before opening, Neath Port Talbot council boasted the new school “represented an £8m investment (And) is a brand new state of the art primary school for approx.300 pupils opened on the site of Glanymor Primary school in September 2013. The new school has replaced both Glanymor and Tir Morfa Primary Schools and will provide an exciting and innovative learning environment designed to a high specification to meet the needs of the local community. The school has state of the art facilities including well designed Foundation Phase and KS2 learning environment; a purpose built food preparation room, fitness studio, a 14 place Pupil Inclusion Centre, community learning rooms, and family conference/meeting rooms.”

Failures

Sounds amazing and yet, this new ‘state of the art primary school’ required further monitoring after its maiden Estyn inspection in 2016. Estyn deemed the school as merely ‘adequate’ in terms of its ability to ‘improving quality’, ‘leadership’, ‘learning experiences’ and most shockingly, its pupil ‘wellbeing’.

Key faults which the report highlighted included:-
Job descriptions do not define the roles of staff clearly enough
The school has not fully addressed the implementation of the National Literacy and Numeracy Framework
Governors have an increasing understanding of the school’s strengths and weaknesses A report on Awel Y Môr Primary School July 2016 3
Processes for self-evaluation are wide ranging, however, they are not rigorous enough
Leaders occasionally overlook important shortcomings in provision

I’m told that other issues the new school has faced are borderline comical. Electric windows which broke down over the summer and so the classrooms reached uncomfortably hot levels. The realisation that as wonderful as under floor heating is, when kids come into school on a wet morning, there is literally nowhere to hang their coats to dry; not a radiator in sight.

Two schools were closed without any ‘significant shortcomings’ to be replaced by one with numerous and requiring further monitoring by Estyn. We have no genuine assurances that our three ‘good’ schools will be replaced with anything better.

Would the council expect the teacher numbers to increase or decrease should these three schools merge?

The Schools’ Census Results 2019 in Wales shows that teacher numbers have “decreased over the last 5 years to a low of 25,802 in 2019. This is largely due to school closures and amalgamations”. NPT didn’t answer this question but I think that gives us an insight directly from Welsh Government figures.

There are nearly 3,000 less employed qualified teachers in Wales in 2019 than in 2006 despite more pupils. The pupil to staff ratio has inevitably increased over this time and the Welsh Governments own study puts this down to school amalgamations like what is proposed here.

There are numerous issues regarding this subject. Mostly, that many teachers feel restrained from telling us their opinion. One told me “We are dead against the school but we can’t say anything because in 4 years time we could be applying for a job there and fear the council will hold it against us”.

For this reason she wishes to stay anonymous but told me “they (new larger schools) have less teachers because they can have larger class sizes and then save money by employing unqualified teaching assistants.” Another issue which was brought up is getting from one side of the school to another “it is crazy. I have a friend working in one of the new schools and there are different key fobs for different doors and they are constantly wasting time getting from one part of the school to another”.

There is a sense of inevitability within the public of Pontardawe. A sense that their opinion and voices will not be heard on the matter. Will the publics opinion be genuinely considered regarding the school closures?

I think that we can all answer this question. Huge parts of the public have lost complete faith that they will be listened to. Teachers, Governors, Parents and even local councillors have a fearful reservation about this.

Suspicions and conspiracies are rife too, with every aspect of it. “it is all about money” is something which comes up time and again. The mood ranges from a mild apathy to full blown fury. Godre’r’graig school and the way that it was closed is still the focus of much scepticism. There appears to be many who believe there are too many ‘conveniences’ which have taken us on this path. The report on Godre’r’graig school, the comparison to ‘Aberfan’, the media being informed before teachers and the temporary school placed on the access to the new proposed school have all raised eyebrows.

“at best we have been misled, at worst we have been lied to” one parent said. What we are seeing within our own borough is not one or two people but many, many people mistrusting our own council. An opinion that some of our elected representatives have deliberately interfered and misinterpreted a report which has closed a Primary School in order to force this new school upon us.

BIG PROBLEM

This is not something small; this is a major issue. Some parents believe that their children have been located in a portacabin, away from their own community on the basis of what they deem a ‘fake report’.

To many, there appears to be a complete lack of respect from council leaders to the public. The way that the new swimming pool has been aligned within the proposed school also evokes anger. One School Governor told me “We will make our decision based on what is best for the kids education regardless of what carrots are dangled in front of us”.

You can understand anger when a report is released which says that Pontardawe will only get a new swimming pool if it agrees to close 3 of its Primary Schools within their community.

Whatever the outcome of the school proposal, the trust of the council within the public of Pontardawe appears incredibly low. Their lack of detail on a project with such importance to the community is surely going to fuel tensions.

Globally, increasing numbers of scientists are beginning to believe that Covid-19 may ‘never go away’. Is this the right time to plan for a larger school?

The feeling that I have had from a number of councillors, governors and teachers ‘off the record’ and various members of the public is that Covid-19 is the perfect time to ‘get this through’. The public are concerned with other factors, it is impossible to meet up to organise opposition to the proposal. Christmas is around the corner and coming in and out of lockdowns are a constant change to daily life. There is a very cynical view that the council have chosen this time to propose the school closures for the very reason that it is more difficult to object to.

Obviously the original question was about whether in 4 years time Covid could still be around. If so whether a school of 100 pupils is better than one of 500 but we didn’t get an answer for that did we?

Questions from Linet & Anthony

Linet and Anthony had slightly better luck receiving some answers to their questions in that meeting back in October. Here is their response:-

How can you propose putting 770 MORE pupils and a swimming pool on the Cwmtawe site when the Council itself has identified that many transport issue already exist?
“Part of the money allocated to build the new school will be earmarked to improve highway access”. Officers also said “The building will not be built until it receives Planning permission. All issues re access will be dealt with at that point.”

Can you assure us that the old swimming pool will not close until the new pool is built?
“ We will do our best.”

Can you assure us that no sporting activities will be lost as a result of the new build?
“The land we intend to use is not widely used. Part of the money that we have allocated for the new build will be spent on improving drainage on one of the pitches”

Consulting over the Christmas period and during a pandemic is not ideal. Would officers agree to extending the consultation by two weeks?
A Agreed.

The report states that you must consider ALL responses to the consultation and, if necessary AMEND the proposal. How likely is it that the proposal could be amended?
If as a result of the consultation we find it necessary to amend the proposal we will bring it back to councillors for their consideration

To add your views to the consultation then follow the link below to the NPT council survey:-
https://wh.snapsurveys.com/s.asp?k=160433102429

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