Primary School Reorganization around Ystradgynlais, Powys

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Primary School Reorganization around Ystradgynlais, Powys

Post  MH on Fri 19 Dec 2008 - 22:09

In the news yesterday, it was announced that Powys Council were going to spend £20m on four new primary schools to replace the existing ten in Maesydderwen catchment area. So I thought I should turn some attention to the area to try and understand the proposal better. This is the story:

£20m plan to build four schools, BBC 18 Dec 2008

Powys is a huge council area and this proposal affects the only the southwest corner of it, centred around Ystradgynlais. Below is a map of the area, with the current ten primary schools marked by crosses. The two Welsh-medium schools are YG Ynysgedwyn and YG Cwmtwrch. The remaining eight are EM. There is another WM primary, Ysgol Y Wern, just over the county boundary in Ystalyfera.

The right hand edge of this map well be cropped, click it to open or download the full version.

The primary schools feed into the mainly EM Ysgol Maesydderwen. But just over the border is Ysgol Gyfun Ystalyfera, which is mainly WM and takes children from YG Ynysgedwyn and YG Cwmtwrch who wish to continue their education in Welsh, just as Maesydderwen will take children from NPT (and nearby parts of Sir Gâr) who want an EM secondary education. By all accounts this mutual arrangement works well.

Powys Council's reasons for the reorganization of primary schools are mainly to do with surplus places and the small size, but also to do with the condition and cost of maintenance of the buildings. Here is a table showing the figures for: number on roll, capacity, and surplus spaces.

Penycae CP ... 48, 66, 18
Coelbren CP ... 27, 51, 24
Caehopkin CP ... 52, 62, 10
Abercraf CP ... 36, 54, 18

Penrhos CP ... 117, 126, 9
Ysgol Cynlais ... 194, 205, 11
Glanrhyd CP ... 97, 114, 17
Gurnos CP ... 49, 121, 72

YG Ynysgedwyn ... 148, 185, 37 (Welsh-medium)
Cwmtwrch CP ... 68, 84, 14 (Welsh-medium)

Pupil numbers, Jan 2008
As a simple mathematical exercise, Powys's proposal of three new EM and one new WM school makes sense. On current numbers it would result in a WM school of 216, and three EM schools each of 207. That equates to four one form entry schools. The demographic trend is downwards, so there should be no pressure on size for some while yet.

Yet things are very seldom as easy as as that. There are two complicating factors, the first is the distance parents are willing to let their children travel, and the second is Welsh-medium provision. The two are probably linked.

It is quite noticeable how close together some of these schools are. So it seems that the parental expectation is generally for their local school to be about 10 minutes' walk away. Not many parts of Wales are so lucky, but it is fairly pointless telling that to parents because they are used to what they've got. One way of making longer travel distances easier to swallow is for the new school to be very much better than the old. So the plan for brand new, state-of-the-art schools certainly makes that pill easier to swallow. In fact it is probably the only way of getting the plans through.

But the Welsh-medium factor complicates things. So perhaps it's worth looking at how Welsh speaking the area is. There are two electoral districts. Tawe Uchaf covers the four north eastern schools and Ysradgynlais the remaining area. From the 2001 census 33.24% in Tawe Uchaf speak Welsh, and 50.59% in Ystradgynlais speak Welsh. Even more interesting is the breakdown by the three age ranges: 3-15, 16-64 and 65+

Tawe Uchaf ... 34.65%, 27.97%, 46.97%
Ystradgynlais ... 46.79%, 45.42%, 67.66%

and also, because it's so close

Ystalyfera ... 53.18%, 43.56%, 71.22%

Report on the Welsh Language [Table WLP01, page 62]
The first point is obvious; this is a highly Welsh speaking area, especially for south Wales. But one thing about these figures is much more puzzling. Nearly everywhere else (in the whole of Wales) the figure for the 3-15 age group is roughly 20 or 30 percentage points higher than for the 16-65 age group. Yet here the difference is marginal.

The only explaination I can think of is that teaching Welsh in schools in this area is somehow not working as well as it should. I first thought that there weren't enough WM schools to meet parental demand. But there are surplus spaces, so perhaps the explanation is one of travel distance. In particular it is a long way to travel from the four villages in Tawe Uchaf to Ysgol Ynysgedwyn.

In normal circumstances I would expect an area which is 50% Welsh speaking to have at least 50% of primary school age children in Welsh-medium schools. For example in Carmarthenshire, which has the same 50%, about 60% are in WM education and this is increasing, as mentioned on another topic. So if Powys are set on building four new schools, I would have thought it more appropriate for two of them to be WM, rather than just one.

Needless to say, decisions about these things need to be determined by consultation. In this case the consultation process needs to include a proper survey of parental wishes, not just of those whose children are currently at school, but of those with pre school age children, because it will take at least two or three years before any new buildings are complete. For example, how many parents in Tawe Uchaf would send their children to a WM school if there was one nearby, rather than 7km away? My guess would be at least a quarter. So I'd suggest that it might be better to retain one of the small schools as a WM primary, even if a new EM school is built to house the children from the four current schools.

In Ystradgynlais ward the figure is more likely to be 50%. That doesn't necessarily mean it's inappropriate to build two new EM and one new WM school. The sizes of the schools don't all have to be the same. Perhaps the WM school could be a one-and-a-half form entry school (like Swansea's new Llwynderw) and therefore have a capacity of 315, or one of the existing schools could be retained. Whatever happens, there needs to be room for future flexibility.

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