‘A’ level playing field?

At Monday’s extraordinary meeting of PCC members agreed by the wafer-thin margin of 25 – 24 to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Pembrokeshire College regarding future ‘A’ level provision in the county.

It was the view of many members, including me, that this MoU tilts the balance in favour of ‘A’ level provision at the college and will, in fairly short order, lead to the demise of post-16 teaching in schools in Milford Haven, Pembroke and Tenby and possibly Haverfordwest.

I would say at this point that my objections to the concentration of post-16 education in Merlins Bridge is based entirely on the view that sixth forms are are an essential ingredient of a school’s ethos and culture and not on any judgement of the quality of education provided at the college.

This MoU first appeared out of the blue at the council meeting on 20 July.

It was clear that a substantial majority of members had serious reservations especially regarding the provision that any ‘A’ level class with fewer than 18 students would be deemed unviable.

As was pointed out, setting the bar so high (when we first considered this issue a couple of years ago a viable’A’ level class was deemed to be 12) meant that few if any schools would be able to clear it.

Seeing which way the wind was blowing, both the cabinet member Cllr David Lloyd and director of education Kate Evan-Hughes were soon rowing back by stressing that there would be flexibility in the system and the figure of 18 was not set in stone.

As I pointed out, the words in the MoU on the subject of viability: “For the avoidance of doubt, class sizes will not be fewer than 18” left little room for the flexibility of which the cabinet member and director now boasted.

In the event, faced with almost certain rejection, the MoU was shuffled of to the relevant scrutiny committee for further examination.

And so just three-and-a-half weeks later a revised version – some of its rougher edges having been rubbed off by the scrutiny committee – came before the extraordinary meeting on Monday.

Also at the 20 July meeting the council also gave its final approval to the new English language 11-19 secondary school in Haverfordwest.

On the face of it, the MoU and the decision on secondary education in Haverfordwest were entirely unconnected, but, where PCC is concerned, it is always wise to take a peek behind the veil.

Cllr Paul Miller was on the case and he asked why all this urgency to have this matter resolved in August which is usually kept free of council meetings.

Chief executive Ian Westley explained:

“The purpose in that in following due process it is an opportunity for anyone who may so wish to make an objection to the decision of council at its last meeting [20 July] regarding the new school in Haverfordwest. That period of time is a statutory period of time which I believe runs out in two days time and as there is a least a perceived link between this item of business [MoU] and that decision, it would seem to be advantageous to have a scrutiny meeting and a further debate on the MoU.”

And when Cllr Miller said he still couldn’t see any connection between the MoU and the 11-19 school in Haverfordwest, Mr Westley told him: “It might be of interest to anyone who might be minded to object to the decision on Haverfordwest school.”

After I expressed the view that this MoU was simply a back door method of doing away with sixth forms in schools, Mr Westley said: “I can’t see the connection between the MoU and the back door method to do away with sixth forms in schools. I actually think it’s quite the opposite. The purpose of the Memorandum is to secure the provision of sixth form provision in our schools.”

So, let’s see if we can join up the dots.

First, who might be minded to make an objection to the 11-19 school in Haverfordwest before the statutory 28 days from 20 July runs out?

Well, that would be Pembrokeshire College whose ambitions to recruit all those Haverfordwest ‘A’ level students were thwarted when members rejected the establishment’s plan for an 11-16 school and opted instead for 11-19.

And why would the council’s agreement to the MoU persuade the college to shelve its objections?

As the college’s objection was motivated by the loss of Haverfordwest ‘A’ level students, it is reasonable to assume that the MoU somehow makes good that deficit, or, as I said it was a back door method of transferring ‘A’ level students from the schools to the college.

When Mr Westley claimed that the purpose of the MoU was to “secure” the provision of ‘A’ levels in schools, Cllr Miller was heard to mutter “rubbish”.

Mr Westley bridled at that, and there was much tut-tutting from the depleted ranks of the IPG, though why the college would be so keen to sign a MoU that worked against its interest by encouraging students to do their ‘A’ levels in schools is not immediately clear.

However, as Cabinet member David Lloyd told the meeting on 20 July: “What the college can do, and the schools can’t, is provide a number of minority ‘A’ level subjects – subjects with less than 18 – because it is a trading business.”

He went on to explain that it had other sources of income, notably overseas students, which enabled it to subsidise courses with small numbers of students.

So we don’t have a level playing field and the college is playing down the slope for both halves.