Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) policy is quite clear in requiring local authorities to take action to remove excessive surplus places in schools. This policy has been in place now for some years and viewed objectively it is difficult to disagree with the rationale. Quite simply surplus places cost money that could otherwise be spent directly funding the teaching of children, and nobody could sensibly argue that it’s right to waste millions of pounds a year funding empty desks that aren’t needed.
The former First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, outlined the extent of the situation quite clearly during an Assembly plenary session on 3 November 2009 as follows:
“The key is that we have a problem with surplus school places, and if we do not do something about it, it will reach 20 per cent. There will always be surplus school places, but there should not ever be more than 10 per cent, so we need to take action to ensure that the problem is addressed. We probably need to see a reduction from 1,500 primary schools to 1,350, and we probably need to see a reduction from 220 secondary schools to 200.”
The message is straightforward – the proportion of places in Welsh schools that is surplus needs to be reduced to no more than 10 per cent of the total places available, and this is going to mean a fairly significant reduction in the number of primary and secondary schools in Wales. The policy is quite clear – schools need to close.
Further to this, WAG announced a new strategy for the provision of Welsh-medium education last year proposing for the first time that targets for such provision would need to be agreed with local authorities. Launching the strategy, the then Education Minister Jane Hutt said:
“I want to make certain that there is access to Welsh-medium education in all parts of Wales for those who choose it for their children…”
So the overall message from WAG is that Welsh councils are required to remove surplus school places (and this is going to mean that schools will have to close) and that Welsh-medium schooling needs to be provided to match local demand.
It is in this context, that I described a recent decision by the current First Minister Carwyn Jones to block Cardiff Council’s proposed reorganisation of primary education in the Canton area of the city as one that will send shockwaves throughout the length and breadth of the principality. The proposal itself was clearly in accord with WAG policies in that it sought to remove surplus places in the English-medium sector and expand provision to match demand in the Welsh-medium sector.
For far too long local council leaders across Wales have begun to despair that as soon as they bring forward school reorganisation proposals in line with WAG policies, they frequently find local Labour Assembly Members amongst those manning the barricades against their proposals. And in a number of cases those local Assembly Members have also been Labour ministers.
I have been involved in the schools reorganisation process for long enough to know that whichever proposals are put forward, there will always be people – usually those who are directly affected – who will argue vociferously that those proposals are wrong regardless of how carefully they have been thought through. Indeed, I have received countless letters over the years from parents of children at affected schools who tell me that whilst they fully accept schools have to close to stop £3 million a year being wasted each year on over 8,000 surplus places in Cardiff’s schools, we have got in wrong in the choice we are making regarding which particular schools should close. But of course, if we had proposed that a different school should close then it would likely be a different group of parents writing in to complain.
However, in moving the process forward in recent years, we have always taken heart from the belief that what we have been doing has been fully in accord with WAG policies on schools, and that those setting the policies must surely be honour-bound to judge our proposals fairly against them.
It is because of this that I have recently described the First Minister’s decision on Cardiff Council’s proposals for schools in Canton as a ‘game-changer’. Why should a proposal that reflects WAG policies on removing surplus places and expanding Welsh-medium provision to match demand not be approved, given that it ticks all the boxes put in front of us?
On the face if it, the First Minister’s decision makes little sense until you take into consideration that throughout the process of taking the proposal forward in the last few years, local Labour representatives have fought it tooth and nail in what could be perceived as a wholly hypocritical campaign that has flown in the face of policies their own party has put in place. Indeed the local Labour Assembly Member in this case is none other than Rhodri Morgan himself. Whilst he was still First Minister he attended a protest meeting at the English-medium primary school proposed for closure, telling parents:
“I can see from the amount of people here, you’ve not come for a tickling contest as they say, and there’s strong opposition to the proposals. It’s the job of me, as your AM, to progress that case and I will do that to the best of my ability.”
So now, with his successor as First Minister rejecting the proposals over two years later, I can’t help but wonder if the whole thing has been some sort of set-up in a desperate move designed to piggy-back on a Labour campaign simply in order to benefit the local electoral fortunes of the Labour Party.
You’re told to remove surplus places and you do what you’re told to do, accepting the fact that you’re not making yourself popular with a particular school community in the process. Then you’re kept waiting an inordinate amount of time for a judgement to be reached, only to ultimately learn that the First Minister has suddenly found a fundamental flaw in your proposal that WAG hasn’t previously advised you of and that he’s therefore rejecting it.
Of course some people would say that I would say that to deflect from the fact that the proposal was ultimately rejected, but closer examination of the decision letter throws up some remarkable inconsistencies which simply add weight to the suggestion that this is a decision designed for party political gain rather than one taken on merit.
It seems to me there are three fundamental questions which Labour ministers must now answer, as follows:
1) Why does the decision make much issue of the fact the proposal might lead to English-medium provision having to be provided over a split site during a transition period which might last a few years, but raise no concern whatsoever that Welsh-medium provision in the area is already being delivered over a split site and this could continue to be the case for some time if an alternative proposal now has to be developed?
2) Why does the decision make issue of the fact that the proposed site for English-medium provision may be deficient in terms of the amount of space provided (something not all that unusual in older, inner-city school sites) and that this could affect the quality of education provided, but then go on to state that the current lack of sufficient accommodation for Welsh-medium provision would not necessarily affect the standard of education provided by the Welsh-medium school should this situation have to continue?
3) Why did the Education Minister not make the decision himself as would normally be the case? Is there truth in the rumour that the real reason for this is that he refused to be party to turning down the council’s proposal? And if that’s not the case, will he now publicly state that he fully supports the First Minister’s decision?
Questions are now being raised about the First Minister’s decision in a growing number of quarters. The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) has described it as ‘retrograde and questionable’, suggesting that it ‘exposes the yawning gap between national rhetoric and local reality on the issue of surplus school places’. Meanwhile, the Association of Directors of Education in Wales (ADEW) has said that it ‘flies in the face of the need to continue to raise standards, reduce surplus places and meet the targets in the recently published Welsh-medium Education strategy, One Wales and the 21st Century Schools initiative’.
But in all of this, we must not lose sight of the children whose education is being affected – whether that’s those currently in badly over-crowded conditions in the Welsh-medium sector or those in the English-medium sector whose teaching is being deprived of the level of funding it deserves whilst money continues to be wasted on providing more school places than we need. Both sectors lose out whilst no solution is able to be progressed.
There is a growing feeling that the First Minister’s decision on the proposal for Canton schools has completely undermined the whole school reorganisation process and that all local authorities are now, as a result, going to be more and more reluctant to grasp a nettle which frankly needs be grasped if we are going to ensure that best use is made of limited to resources in order to provide the best quality education in the best quality surroundings for generations of children to come.
At the stroke of a pen, the First Minister has rewritten the ground rules for schools reorganisation, taken away any assurance that may have previously existed that proposals from local authorities would always be judged purely on their educational merits and essentially turned the future of children’s education in Wales into nothing less than a massive political football.
The implications of this must not be underestimated, and quite where we go from here is not immediately apparent. Indeed some media coverage in the wake of the decision has suggested that it is rocking the foundations of Labour’s coalition in the Assembly with Plaid Cymru. I would also note that my call for the whole schools reorganisation process to be reviewed has subsequently been echoed in the statements from both the WLGA and ADEW.
Welsh Labour Ministers will now have to work incredibly hard to repair a growing lack of trust from local authorities that are fed up being kicked in the teeth simply for doing their bidding. I personally believe Carwyn Jones will in time rue the day he decided to rewrite the rules of schools reorganisation to give greater weight to party political benefit over educational considerations.
Rodney Berman is the Welsh Liberal Democrat leader of Cardiff Council and leader of the Welsh Lib Dem Group on the Welsh Local Government Association.