Tuesday 24 January 2012

Carmarthenshire cuts back on adult education - updated

See update below

At the end of 2011 and again at the beginning of this year, the council published a flurry of documents outlining proposed spending cuts and increases in charges. As people slowly became aware of what was being proposed, a storm started brewing, and the ruling Independent/Labour coalition suddenly remembered that this was an election year and promptly put several of the proposed cuts on hold - at least for the time being and until the election is out of the way.

Since then, things have gone pretty quiet as we wait for the council to come up with revised proposals that will somehow square the circle of cutting spending and keeping council tax increases down without high profile closures of respite care homes, etc.

This being a democracy, on paper at least, the proposals will then have to go to the Executive Board and on to the full council for approval.

Odd then, you might think, that the chief executive has started a programme of detailed cuts in some of the areas outlined in the proposals without waiting for the proposals to be signed off.

One of the areas targeted is adult education, with a "consultation" document being issued to the staff affected.

The document itself requires a strong stomach and an iron determination for anyone intending to read through the morass of jargon, bureaucratese, corporate bollocks and spin, because in true Carmarthenshire fashion, the document is shot through with dishonesty.

In essence, the council intends to restructure the management of its adult education and slim down the payroll, and the document gives us a whole host of reasons why this is a good idea (nine, in fact), with cost reduction being the very last on the list.

Here is one of the benefits of the restructure, which involves shuffling management jobs, the creation of one new post, and the introduction of more processes, forms, monitoring, measuring and evaluation:

The need for a dedicated service manager role to oversee the achievement of service targets and outcomes, franchise contract requirements, quality improvement and the day to day management of the Community Learning Officer roles.

Got that?

The document kicks off by citing a critical report on the county's adult education service produced by Estyn in March 2011. Now, Estyn is not everybody's favourite quango, and its language is often opaque and crippled by jargon. In the case of Carmarthenshire, however, the judgment was pretty clear and not full of the praise the council likes to lavish on itself.

What Estyn said was that the county needed to do much more to improve the quality of both teaching and learning; it needed to improve its safeguarding of vulnerable adults; and it needed to improve its provision of Welsh-medium and bilingual education. Pretty damning, in other words.

The document also notes that the numbers of people enrolling on the county's courses dropped sharply from 2,096 in 2010-11 to 1,710 in the current year. The number of courses offered has also been slashed, as has the number of part-time tutors.

Courses offered by the council cover a wide range of subjects, including adult literacy and numeracy, computing, arts and crafts, and Welsh for Adults, which accounts for a significant chunk of overall service provision.

Welsh for Adults is a good example of where the council has gone wrong. Welsh for Adults courses are run across Wales, which is divided for this purpose into regions. In the region to which Carmarthenshire belongs, some Welsh courses are run by Swansea University and others by the county councils - a daft arrangement in itself.

Much of the funding comes from the EU, and is channelled through the Welsh Government. Each of the regions decides on the content of its own courses, which means that across Wales learners are following widely different courses, and some are much better than others. In Carmarthenshire, learners follow a course with beautifully produced, all-colour text books which cost about 3.5 times as much as the course materials used in neighbouring counties.

This being Carmarthenshire, you will not be surprised to hear that our county is also streets ahead of its neighbours when it comes to the volume and complexity of the paperwork involved in these courses. The tutors have to spend more time on managing the bureaucratic processes imposed by the council than they do in actually preparing their teaching. Since the tutors are only paid for the time spent in class, have no job security, are actually not very well paid and have to spend so much of their time ensuring that reports have been filed on time, forms correctly filled out, etc., it is fair to say that they are not in it for the money, but teach because they have a passion for the Welsh language and want to see it survive and grow stronger.

Possibly because of the recession, the number of people enrolling on Welsh for Adults courses has fallen in many, but not all, parts of Wales. Carmarthenshire, with its expensive courses and the dead weight of its  process driven  top-down management has suffered more than most. Contrary to the recommendations made by Estyn, then, the response has been to cut courses and, as we have seen from the consultation document, plan for an increase in monitoring, measurement and paperwork.

To add insult to injury, the "consultation" document on the restructuring went out to the county's tutors charged with delivery courses in Welsh or teaching Welsh to adults in English only, neatly encapsulating the council's abysmal record on the Welsh language, which it claims it treats on an equal footing with English.

But it need not be like this. Say Something in Welsh, a largely web-based Welsh language teaching platform, is going from strength to strength. They now claim that they have over 15,000 members worldwide. In Ceredigion numbers have been holding up well, and the county is producing a steady stream of people who have become fluent, active speakers of Welsh in the community.

Part of the solution is not to create more office-bound jobs and monitoring processes while relying on a few sparse adverts, but to get people off their asses and out onto the streets to promote adult education, whether its Welsh for Adults, web design or cake decoration. Make it fun, make it relevant and sell the idea to all those parents with children in Welsh medium schools and people whose last experience of education was enough to put them off for life.

But sadly the chances of any of that happening in Carmarthenshire any time soon are remote as long as Meryl and Mark are in charge, with their top-down, process driven, cynical view of both the public (or "rabble" as Meryl likes to thinks of us) and "their" staff (lazy).

This is turning out to be another classic example of a Carmarthenshire "consultation". According to the Unison representative, staff were called to a meeting on 2 December to be told about the changes. As an afterthought, a consultation document (English only) was sent out on 16 January, and apart from a lot of constipated management jargon, it contained no information on job roles for the people affected. It also seems that the agreed internal procedures were not followed before the document was issued.

Staff morale is said, unsurprisingly, to be at "rock bottom", and several have commented that the previous restructure in 2008 was carried out in a similarly high-handed and rushed way.

As a result, the deadline for the consultation has now been put back by a month, and new documentation in both Welsh and English is being sent out.

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