Wednesday 16 May 2012

Pantycelyn - eyes closed and missed opportunities

On my way into work last night I caught part of Radio Cymru's current affairs discussion programme called Hawl i Holi (Right to Ask) which came from Myddfai near Llandovery.

The format of Hawl i Holi is similar to the BBC's Question Time, only the chairman, Dewi Llwyd, is not  pompous and domineering, and many of the questions are of immediate concern to the area from which the programme is broadcast.

On the panel last night were the broadcaster Elinor Jones, who lives in the area, Stephen James, vice-president of NFU Wales, Dr Felix Aubell, a Tory and minister of religion, and Ffred Ffransis, who lives in the county and is Cymdeithas yr Iaith's spokesperson on education.

The first question up was about the Westminster coalition, while the second dealt with the county council's plans to close Ysgol Pantycelyn in Llandovery. Responses from the panel and members of the audience were almost universally critical of the council, although Felix Aubell said that local parents had to shoulder part of the blame for sending their children to schools further afield in Llandeilo and Carmarthen.

Elinor Jones drew loud applause when she questioned the decision to site the proposed new school on land prone to flooding just outside Llandeilo, and several contributors pointed out the vast distances and long travelling times children from the rural hinterland of Llandovery will face.

Ffred Ffransis pointed out that the county council had once again closed its eyes and missed a wider opportunity to rethink education provision in the area. His solution was a federation of primary and secondary schools to offer Welsh medium education across a wide area, including neighbouring areas of Powys, although of course cross-border cooperation with that authority is not on the cards, despite Carmarthenshire's commitment to the Welsh Government's compact to increase collaboration in education, social care and waste management.

Ffred also pointed out that the council's whole Modernising Education Programme was based on a rigid plan to close existing schools and build vast new area schools at huge cost. The tens of millions of pounds being pumped into school building plans in selected areas would be far better spent on improving education provision within existing schools.

A couple of speakers said that there was nothing wrong at all with Pantycelyn's buildings, and a pupil from the school (I think, from memory) added that the council could easily have turned Pantycelyn into one of the best schools in the county if only it had invested in giving it things like a decent science lab and all-weather sports facilities.

The final decision now lies with Leighton Andrews, and parents and students can only hope that he forces the council to rethink. The money is there, and the solutions outlined by Ffred Ffransis and the young questioner would cost a great deal less than a gigantic new school over in Llandeilo. What is missing is imagination and genuine care for the interests of the north-eastern corner of the county.

Also missing, unsurprisingly, were any representatives from county council itself or the area's newly re-elected Independent councillors, who clearly have better things to do with their time than attend forums like this and listen to the people they represent.

Perhaps the fact that they cannot claim travel expenses to Myddfai put them off.

If anyone from County Hall or the councillors had been listening, one phrase was repeated again and again - losing faith. People were losing faith in the process was the message.

The cumbersome, bureaucratic and confusing consultancy process is not the council's fault, it has to be said, but poor management of the process, lack of publicity locally and the council's habit of ignoring consultations certainly are accusations that can be thrown at council officers.

As for the councillors, a strong local county councillor would have mobilised local people and ensured that a strong and effective campaign was run. What the people of the area got instead were councillors who stayed silent and invisible.

No wonder there is so much apathy and rejection among voters, and sadly that plays straight into the hands of the powers-that-be.

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