The most recent edition of the county council's "newspaper", Carmarthenshire News, tells readers under a front-page banner headline that the council is about to unleash a £151 million spending programme to modernise the county's schools, and it lists a number of those schools which it claims will benefit.
Of course, we are now in the run-up to the next council elections, and people who live in the catchment areas of the schools listed in the article will no doubt be hearing from their councillors that, thanks to their efforts, children can expect soon to be going to a brand-new shiny school. In some cases, parents would be well-advised to take these claims with a large dose of salt.
Conversely, if you don't hear about plans to upgrade or replace your local school and are just told by your Independent or Labour councillor that the county is investing huge sums in schools, you can be pretty sure that nothing is going to happen in your area for a very long time to come.
Getting to the bottom of where the money is going and when is surprisingly difficult, and it is also difficult to see how the council's press office arrives at the figures it is quoting. Even for those schools which are in Band A (the highest priority for new investment), things are not quite as they seem, as we can see from the row between Mr Edward Thomas, chair of Llandeilo County Primary, and the local Independent councillor, Ieuan Jones (here).
Parents with children at Seaside primary school in Llanelli might also have been surprised to see their school listed in the council's propaganda sheet as being in line for a brand-new school building (if there were smallprint in the article, it would read "not until 2020"). At the council meeting in January of this year, chief executive Mark James rounded on Plaid's Councillor Winston Lemon when he asked what had happened to the £16 million earmarked for a new school at Seaside. Mr James told him that because of disagreement over the siting of the proposed new school, priority was now being given to a new school at Ffwrnes in Llanelli instead, suggesting that this was all the fault of local troublemakers who would not just shut up and accept what the council was proposing.
By a strange coincidence, the Seaside controversy involves a financially distressed sports club, something which seems to be an obligatory ingredient in any Llanelli development row.
Let's try to get to grips with the numbers.
The County Council has been running its own Modernising Education Programme for more than 10 years. A report which summarises the projects completed in the period to March 2011 can be found here. The appendix to the report helpfully provides a table listing all the projects and their monetary value, and it shows that by March 2011 a total of just under £82 million had been spent on various projects. Obviously, a significant proportion of that funding came from central government.
Major schemes included £28.5m spent on the new Queen Elizabeth High School in Carmarthen. Other secondary school projects over the same period amounted to £8.4 million, leaving £45.1m for primary school projects.
Carmarthenshire News tells us that "by the end of this financial year" (i.e. March 2012), spending on the Modernising Education Programme will have reached £128 million. If that figure is correct, spending in the last year has rocketed to £46 million in a single year - more than half the amount spent in the preceding 10 years.
According to the council's own annual report on the programme (quoted above), spending for 2011-12 was projected to be £18.8m, including £8m for the proposed new secondary school at Llandeilo. The Llandeilo project is currently awaiting a decision by the minister in Cardiff following a bitterly contested statutory consultation, so it would seem unlikely that that £8m has been spent.
Where Carmarthenshire News got its figures from is therefore a mystery - clearly not from the Department of Education's own published figures, as we can see.
Slightly confusingly, the Welsh Government has a separate schools programme of its own called 21st Century Schools, which was a re-working and re-branding of plans formulated by the previous Plaid-Labour administration in Cardiff.
In 2010 local authorities across Wales submitted a Strategic Outline Programme, or SOP, to the Welsh Government to bid for funding under the 21st Century Schools Programme. Carmarthenshire's response can be found here. In line with guidance from Cardiff, the council went through some consultation with boards of governors and other interested parties as it drew up its response.
The SOP required councils to prioritise plans by allocating school projects to 4 different bands, with Band A being the highest priority.
Late in 2011 the Welsh Government, in response to cuts in central government funding, went back to the councils and asked them to review their Band A proposals to exclude any refurbishment projects. Carmarthenshire did this, claiming that the very tight timescales allowed by the Welsh Government meant that no further consultation would be possible, and it asked councillors to approve the plans retrospectively after they had already been re-submitted.
Guidance from the Welsh Government on this review was clear, and the changes were meant only to affect Band A priorities. Nevertheless, it has become clear that the council's officers undertook changes to other bands and priorities as well, so that, for example, Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn in Newcastle Emlyn found itself being shunted from Band B (medium-term priority) to Band C (one day, perhaps). This and other changes were made without consultation, and the affected schools were, it seems, not informed of the changes.
In response to questions, governors of Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn were recently told that their school had been "prioritised as a Band C" school. That says something about the honesty, or lack of it, which permeates this whole process.
The revised Band A priority list can be found here. Unfortunately, the quality of the document on the council's website leaves a lot to be desired, but you can see from the table that the projects listed extend out to 2021-22 and total £86.8 million. The figure of £151 million is arrived at, it seems, by adding in "other MEP schemes" valued at £75.5m.The largest chunk of that - just over £50 million, is accounted for by the Dinefwr secondary schools project.
Of the £87 million Band A programme, just £19.3 million is being allocated to secondary schools, so that primary schools, including Trimsaran school in Meryl's own backyard, are once again taking the lion's share.
The council's Executive Board says in its report that the initial wave of projects defined in Band A will run over 6 years, although the Llandeilo County Primary project is not scheduled for completion for another 10 years.
Where that leaves Band B projects is an open question. Not any time soon, would appear to be the answer. If you are a Band C or Band D school, then the chances of getting any new money for the next 10 to 20 years would seem to be very remote indeed.
In the case of Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn, a school with around 700 pupils, the school has seen just £700,000 of investment, mainly on a new arts and drama centre, since 2001. The main school building is an increasingly dilapidated 1960s block which is now unlikely to see any new capital spending in the next 15 years. £700,000 spent over a period of 25 years is, needless to say, hopelessly inadequate, and by this summer the school will have been waiting for well over a year to get urgently needed funding of £70,000 to bring its toilet block up to an acceptable standard, because although the money has been allocated by the council, mismanagement by council officers has meant there have been repeated delays in starting work, now only provisionally planned for the coming summer break.
Of course, everyone across the county will have their own special cases, but Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn highlights very well what is wrong with this whole process. What we are left with is completely misleading and dishonest spin and election propaganda being put out by the county's Press Office in the pages of Carmarthenshire News, which is raising expectations and hopes where in reality there are none; we have a programme which is dominated by primary school projects, including the closure of many village schools, at the expense of secondary education, which is where investment is most needed; and worse than all of that, we have a system which is failing not just the current generation, but which seems destined and programmed to continue failing for decades to come.