Friday 6 July 2012

Education in Carmarthenshire: a tale of two reports

A snowstorm of school inspection reports has just been published by Estyn, and two are of particular interest to residents of Carmarthenshire. Copies can be found here.

The first is a general appraisal of education provision across the county, and the second is a report on Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn, one of the authority's 14 secondary schools.

The first thing to say is that it is very hard indeed to reconcile the positive picture painted by the first report with the damning verdict delivered in the second.

Estyn uses a 4-point grading system (excellent-good-adequate-unsatisfactory), and against nearly all of the criteria assessed, the County is rated "good", with an overall rating of "good".

The report finds that performance at all of the key stages has improved in recent years, and that the percentage of school leavers without a qualification is among the lowest in Wales. It claims that support for additional learning and social inclusion is good; the Modernising Education Programme is praised; and County Hall managed to persuade the inspectors that they understand that education is influenced by "the impact of wider regeneration and social care".

Whatever that last point means is not explained, but no doubt County Hall will be very pleased to hear this endorsement of their wider policies of outsourcing and prestige development projects.

Estyn is also a big fan of the council's Modernising Education Programme, which involves the closure of large numbers of village schools to eliminate spare places, and its controversial reorganisation of secondary education, which includes the planned closure of the secondary school in Llandovery.

As we know, huge sums are being pumped into new schools in parts of the county, but the report states enigmatically,

However, the authority has not analysed systematically enough the benefits arising from its investment in terms of improving the condition, suitability and efficiency of its schools.

Again, Estyn does not explain what it means.
In another note of criticism, the report states,

The authority and its schools have, in the past, spent too little on the routine repair and maintenance of school buildings. Current financial planning does not address adequately the need to ensure that new school buildings are well maintained into the future so that they remain in good condition.


Despite this significant investment, the authority’s data shows that just over half of pupils are taught in buildings in need of further investment.

In plain English, the council is spending a great deal of money on school buildings in some places, but then neglecting ongoing maintenance (e.g. in one new primary school Cneifiwr knows, parts of the roof leak in heavy rain and there is inadequate drainage around the school buildings). And anyone familiar with the shabby state of many older buildings will be surprised to hear Estyn's claim that lack of repair and maintenance is a thing of the past.

As for support for additional learning and special educational needs, parents battling to get support for children with literacy problems, dyslexia, speech therapy and language skills will be surprised to hear that provision is "good". They will be even more baffled to read,

The authority has the second highest number of appeals to the Special Educational Needs Tribunal for Wales. It is working to reduce the percentage of pupils with statements of special educational needs, which is currently the third highest in Wales. This work includes piloting innovative work for the Welsh Government in assessing pupils’ additional needs and providing for them without going through statutory assessment.

In the case of one family I know, the "innovative work" which avoids statutory assessment means almost exactly what it says on the can: the parents' efforts to get support for their 9 year-old with serious reading and writing difficulties (very likely dyslexia) have been ignored for two years, and no assessment has been carried out.

As they have already discovered, fighting the system is time-consuming and complicated. As "pushy" parents, they intend to fight on, but it is obvious that for many children from more disadvantaged backgrounds, the dice are loaded against them from the start.

And so the report chunters on. Boxes are ticked, and backs are slapped.

Now let's move on to the second report dealing with Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn.

The school was last inspected in 2006, and the new report makes for very depressing reading. So much so, that you have to wonder what Estyn and the County Council's strategic visionaries and "senior leaders who work in a sophisticated way" have been doing for the last 6 years.

Unlike the council itself, the school is classed as "unsatisfactory" in several categories, and it is given an overall rating of unsatisfactory.

The school has 639 pupils, and the school roll is rising. It has a broad intake of children from a wide range of social backgrounds, and most of the teaching is through the medium of English.

The school budget for the school is currently £4,224 per pupil, compared with an average of £4,938 for the county as a whole. That average masks a huge variation in spend in secondary education, which goes from £7,322 at the top end down to £4,096.

Overall, the school is 10th out of 14 in terms of spending per pupil.

Later in the report, Estyn tells us that the school has been running a deficit for the last two years, and is anticipating a significant deficit for 2012-13. In Estyn's view, "taking into account the unsatisfactory standards, the school provides unsatisfactory value for money". 

A more common sense finding would have been that the school is seriously under-funded. It has in fact been caught in an impossible dilemma of struggling to balance its books, partly by cutting provision and teacher numbers, while trying to meet demands to expand its curriculum. Estyn doesn't go into that sort of detail.

Anyone who knows the school will be aware that the main block is a shabby and depressing place. Estyn notes that the toilets and changing rooms are in a poor (i.e. truly terrible) state. The council will very belatedly get around to doing something about the toilets this summer, it says, after several years of delay and bumbling.

Alongside the main block is a new creative arts centre (partly funded by an external agency, I believe). No sooner had that been built than the council slashed its schools music programme, and pupils taking their Art A Levels last year were left without a teacher when a member of staff suffered an accident. Again, Estyn skims over this clear case of left hand, right hand.

Otherwise, you can search the council's Modernising Education Programme from top to bottom for spending on this school, and you will find that over a period of 20 years investment in the core of the school will be zero.

As for the school budget, the Governors have been arguing the case for some time that the school is under-funded, even according to the council's own funding criteria. They recently invited the council's Director of Education, Rob Sully, along to a meeting to set out their case, and claim that they were assured twice that he would attend.

Sadly it seems that he was far too busy, because after waiting in eager anticipation for the great man to arrive, it slowly dawned on the governors that their invitation had been wasted. No apology or explanation given.

In common with all other schools in the county, Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn has a Schools Improvement Officer, and it has been suggested that like Mr Sully, the trip out into the sticks is often just that bit too far. The author of this blog cannot verify that, although you can draw your own conclusions from the Estyn report.

The report also highlights the school's poor performance in literacy in English and Welsh, and it notes in particular the failure to build on the Welsh language abilities of children coming up from primary schools. 
Despite this, Estyn is pleased to see that all pupils are entered for the full GCSE course in Welsh as a second language.

Somehow, though, it escaped Estyn's attention that a good many of the children taking Welsh as a second language are unable to use the language in any meaningful way, with vocabulary which extends no further than "Diolch" and "Rydw i'n hoffi coffi". Some of the "Welsh" classes consisted, at least until very recently, of watching videos in English or Welsh with English subtitles.

Elsewhere, the inspectors note in passing that sometimes pupils of higher ability are not sufficiently challenged.

On a positive note, it remains true that a good proportion of pupils from the school continue to go on to higher education, including to some of the best universities, although quite a few find that they have a mountain to climb when they get there compared with their contemporaries.

The school can also be proud of the many talented and successful young people it has taught over the years, but what emerges from the report is a system which has let down children who could have emerged from school with better grades and skills.

One of the other casualties of the report is the head, who is a very decent and likable man. He has been made to shoulder much of the blame, and is now leaving the school.

But as the first of Estyn's reports shows, no blame will attach to anyone in County Hall for the years of under-funding and neglect. That's Teflon for you.


Anonymous said...

Dylse nhw gau Ysgol Emlyn. Ysgol Saesneg, Seisnig ar gyfer pobl sydd ddim yn hoff y Welsh.

Why should tax payer's money be spent on Ysgol Emlyn which is a major anglicising force in Sir Gar an Ceredigion. Close it down.

Anonymous said...

What in favour of a Welsh Medium Only School Cultural Nazism I think !!
What;s the solution send the children to Cardigan and have no secondary school in NCE

Anonymous said...

The 'unsatisfactory' for NE and 'good' for Carms do not seem to accord with the judgements made by the separate teams of inspectors. The Carms report seemed to take much at face value. This is a temptation because there is little time to do more than check paperwork.(I was a lay inspector for over 10 years.)

Cneifiwr said...

Thank you for that last comment. I strongly suspect that the Education Department is focussed on the Modernising Education Programme, with its massive programme of school closures, reorganisations and major capital projects, to the detriment of the day-to-day running of schools.

Some of Emlyn's problems were undoubtedly homemade, but others trace back to County Hall.

Your insight is appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn is a happy (-Esyn) COMMUNITY school offering CHOICE to both pupils and their parents. The humanities can be chosen to be taught in Welsh if wished. The Teifi valley also has the CHOICE of a Welsh medium school in Llandysul. Welsh medium schools consistently receive additional funding - rate payers money. How disappointing that in 2012 such bigoted, and ill-infomed views still exist.

Cneifiwr said...

Thanks for that comment, which I hope was a reference to the first commenter's suggestion that the school should be closed.

Although Welsh language provision does feature in Estyn's report, I think we are doing the school and ourselves a disservice if we turn this into a debate about Welsh versus English.

The sad truth is that a generation of children (i.e. those who have passed through the school since the last report in 2006) has been let down, and not all of the blame can be pinned on one individual.

We need to ask ourselves why Estyn can say on the one hand that the county council is doing a great job, while some of the schools it is responsible for are clearly struggling.

And why is there such a huge discrepancy in funding between secondary schools? Having looked at the figures, I can say with confidence that language has nothing to do with it.

Anonymous said...

There is always a difference in funding for Welsh Medium schools, sometimes significant sometimes not. In Carmarthenshire it is as follows for Bilingual secondary schools:-

"24.2 In the secondary sector there is additional funding, based on a set formula, for
bilingual education. In KS3 and KS4 an addition of 0·2 teachers is allocated per set
of 3 subjects taught bilingually during each school year. In the Sixth Form, an
additional 0·1 teacher is allocated per individual subject taught bilingually with Y12
and Y13 considered separately."

That is not the end of it of course; there are separate funding streams outside of delegated school budgets that can be drawn on by WM and bi-lingual schools.

Cneifiwr said...

Thank you for that. You are right, of course, and it stands to reason that offering a bilingual education will always cost more. Money very well spent, too!

At the risk of repeating myself, though, the league tables for Carmarthenshire school spending don't seem to show that language is a major factor in the differences in funding levels.

Anonymous said...

Usually there is a very complex formula for delegated school budgets. As I have said Welsh Medium Supplement can make a difference. A small school in Cardiff will get £25,000 a year for being WM even when it has less than 10 pupils. Both WM secondary schools get £100,000 each each year for being WM to buy two extra teachers. My personal belief is that a school that has pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds needs extra teachers but a very middle class Secondary school in Cardiff with less than 8% of its pupils on Free school Meals can manage very nicely without a massive handout every year.

The reason why delegated school budgets vary so much is linked to Free school meals, Size of School, and occupancy rates. If you have a school designed for 1000 pupils and you have 500 pupils in it then you still pay rates for a large school, heating for a large school, cleaning bills, grounds upkeep etc etc. Often class sizes vary so that a teacher on £40,000 a year is teaching 10 kids instead of 15. The result is that all costs are divided by 500 instead of 1000 and so delegated budget per pupil goes sky high.

Half empty schools are wasting money that could fund teachers. Splitting schools up into Welsh Medium or English medium (whether you think it good practice or not) is extremely expensive since you can end up with two schools that are under occupied side by side without any chance of amalgamating them.

Cneifiwr said...

Thank you again for that really useful insight. The Carmarthenshire website shows how the figures are broken down by school (Section 52 statements), which can be found here:

(see Planned Statements 2012/13 Part 3)

Anonymous said...

I read your blog with intrest...I feel that instead of hiding behind this blog you should run for council and see if you can do a better job! However I do fear that you are in fact a disgruntled back bencher in disguise!

Cneifiwr said...

Fortunately for the people of Carmarthenshire I am gainfully employed. I've also come to realise that very few of the councillors actually get any say in anything.

Anonymous said...


If very few of the councillors get any say in anything.....then who has the power over making the decisions?

How is the weather in CNE today? I'm the other side of the world at the moment?

Cneifiwr said...

Grey, but not raining (yet). Small smidges of blue between the clouds.

As for who calls the shots, we now have a 10 member Executive Board which is theoretically where the decisions are made. The other 64 councillors hardly register.

In practice most of the Executive Board members would struggle to find their way out of a paper bag, so the officers are firmly in charge.

Anonymous said...


Emlyn Uwch Cych said...

My spies at last night's Ysgol Emlyn parents meeting tell me that the outgoing Head claims the Estyn team arrived at the wrong time, didn't get a true picture of their excellent school, saw the wrong things, etc.

The blitz team from CCC sought to assure everybody that all was in order, no need for concern, etc.

Then the Q&As came: the parents, it seems, didn't believe it for a moment. They have a long road to travel, I fear.