On manoeuvres

The Western Telegraph website has a report on a recent meeting in St Davids where the penny seems to have dropped that Cllr Jamie Adams’ last minute concession (climbdown/U-turn/volte face/capitulation – call it what you will) over the closure of Ysgol Dewi Sant may not be all it seems to be.

My advice to the good people on the St Davids peninsula is to keep counting your spoons.

Grumpette and I have some experience of these matters following the council’s decision last July to merge Hakin Community School with Hubberston School in one new school building.

A brief history of these events will help to further your understanding of how these things work.

Early in 2010 Governors of Hakin Infants and Hakin Junior schools were called to meeting with Cllr Huw George (the then Cabinet member with responsibility for education) and senior council officers to discuss the merger of the two schools to form Hakin Community schools.

I was a governor at Hakin Infants at the time and it soon became clear that the two chairs of the governing bodies and the headteachers had been involved in preliminary discussions and that the deal had been more or less agreed.

My only objection was that there were no firm plans for a new building to house Hakin Community School and that, as things stood, the new school would be operating on two separate sites which I considered to be unsatisfactory.

I proposed that the governors’ agreement to the merger should be conditional on the provision of a new school building under the 21st Century Schools programme.

However, it was pointed out that unless the merger was agreed (transformational – a word we will hear more of later) the Welsh Government would not consider any bid for funds under 21st Century Schools.

We were also given figures for future school rolls which showed numbers falling dramatically over the next few years. All I will say is that these figures turned out to be somewhat less than reliable.

Cllr Huw George advised that he had been given an assurance by Welsh Government that despite “austerity” the 21st Century Schools programme was safe.

As I said at the time, anyone who is naive enough to take the promises of politicians at face value – especially with an election due the following year – shouldn’t be allowed out on their own.

However the merger went ahead as planned, but changes to the 21st Century Schools programme – it was delayed for four years and the funding ratios were changed from 70:30 (WG:PCC) to 50:50 – mean that the new school for Hakin still hasn’t materialised with the result that a cohort of children will have spent their entire primary school careers in what everyone agrees is an unsatisfactory two-site arrangement.

In 2014 the Welsh Government restarted the 21CS programme and PCC agreed to consult parents in Hakin/Hubberston. There were two proposals on the table: a new building for Hakin Community School (together with a refurb for Hubberston VC) and a merger of both schools.

An informal consultation was put in train and parents of children attending Hubberston school were unanimously opposed to the closure of their school and at a meeting in June 2013 they were given a categorical assurance by David Hopkins (PCC’s acting head of education) that a new building for Hakin Community School would go ahead regardless of whether Hubberston joined the party.

What’s more, parents were told PCC had the money set aside to fund the building work.

In November 2013, despite the objections of the Hubberston parents, Cabinet agreed to go out to formal consultation on the preferred option of combining all the schools in Hakin/Hubberston on a single site.

During this formal consultation exercise in December 2013 it emerged that the council had already submitted a business case to Welsh Government in late September based on a single school.

So, if Hubberston parents were successful in fighting off the merger proposals, the council would have to submit a new plan for Hakin Community School, delaying the start of the building project by some 12 months.

Furthermore, we were told that Welsh Government had given the single school plan the green light, but there was no guarantee that it would fund a two-school outcome.

So the choice was to either accept what was on the table, or risk a long delay at best, and at worst no new school at all.

In other words they had been painted into a corner and the consultation exercise was a complete sham.

The matter was due before full council on July 17 2014 for final approval and a couple of weeks prior to that meeting a top civil servant from Cardiff came down to give us a talk on the 21st Century Schools programme.

Ostensibly this was designed to educate members on the mechanisms underlying the scheme, but anyone listening carefully would also have got the message that any projects that didn’t jump through the Welsh Government’s “transformational” hoops wouldn’t qualify for funding.

At the meeting on July 17, Cabinet member for education Cllr Sue Perkins let the cat out of the bag when she said: “We all attended the meeting with Welsh Government – I’m sure you were both there – who said very clearly they wouldn’t accept two very similar schools very close to each other. That’s not transformational. They are asking with 21st Century Schools programme for transformational schools.”

And her predecessor Cllr Ken Rowlands added: “I would first put this before you – can you imagine, if we were allowed to do it, we wouldn’t be allowed to do it. You heard at the last meeting of the 21st Century Schools programme – the lady there, the civil servant, vindicated, frankly, our choice of what we are trying to do in that area.”

Whether “vindicated” is the right word when the council was merely following Welsh Government instructions is a moot point.

So not only was the consultation a sham, but the notion that the county council was a free agent in discussing the various options was mere posturing.

The whole business was nothing more than a show designed to deceive parents into believing that their views would be taken into account.

I’m afraid this sort of charade is what gives democracy a bad name. Which brings me to the question of the Leader’s U-turn over the closure of Ysgol Dewi Sant.

Members had before them a 72-page document, prepared by council officers at considerable expense, the main thrust of which was the elimination of surplus places in four of the county’s secondary schools.

Interestingly, the school recommended for closure (Ysgol Dewi Sant) is the only one that is fully subscribed, indeed it has three pupils more (465) than its official capacity (462).

However, according to the figures in the report this is all due to change because by 2020 it is forecast that numbers will have fallen to 324 leaving it with 138 surplus places (30%).

In addition, the proposals put forward by Cllr Adams will see the sixth form – 56 pupils by 2020 – relocated to Pembrokeshire College.

As the mathematicians among you will already have worked out, that increases surplus places to 194 – a whopping 42%. At £510 per surplus place that is within a whisker of a hundred grand a year.

The leader told the meeting that some “clear thinking” had gone into his proposals for retaining secondary education in St Davids.

Heaven help us if he is ever confused!

I suspect that most of the clear thinking was directed towards keeping Cllr Adams’ hands on the levers of power. He had probably calculated that, if he pressed the original proposals to the vote, he would have lost, with negative consequences for his credibility.

On that reckoning, his carefully staged climb down was simply kicking the can down the road. He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day, and all that.

When this matter returns to council in the autumn, don’t be surprised if you see Cllr Sue Perkins up on her feet, arms waving, as she explains that the Welsh Government have ruled that the proposals are not sufficiently “transformational”, so it’s back to Plan A.

And Cllr Adams will be there telling the assembled throng of protesters that his brave fight to keep the school open has been thwarted by those wicked socialists in Cardiff.

Pass the buck, or pass the sick bucket – take your pick.