Sunday, 12 April 2015

Globe Hustings - Education

This half of the evening was introduced by Rev. Ian Charlesworth. He's been a governor of Gwernyfed School for six years, and chair for two. He spoke eloquently about the problems governors, and the schools, have. For instance, Gwernyfed has been through three or four Ofsted inspections, each one done according to different criteria which the school had to meet - changing expectations of the school and the teacher is the only constant. And governors, who take on a voluntary position, are expected to be professional more and more. There is even training (or "Death by Power Point" as he called it). And if anything goes wrong, the governors get blamed.
He wants the best standards, but Gwernyfed is achieving good results and the Powers that Be still want to close it down.
It particularly infuriates him that the local MP, whichever of the people on the platform it ends up being, has no say whatsoever in the education of the children of Powys - it's in the hands of the County Council, or to be more precise, in the hands of the few County Councillors who are on the cabinet of the County Council. No-one else has a look in.
He pointed out that children are being constantly tested, from the age of four, and he also pointed out that pupils from Gwernyfed are getting into the universities of their choice, including Oxbridge, but the school is still being expected to do more.
His question to the candidates was: Why is education politicised?

Darran Thomas (UKIP) said "Money." That's why it is politicised. He said that Llandrindod Wells school was put into Special Measures because of the number of free school meals they provided. He wants to see apprenticeships offered in secondary schools alongside academic subjects.
Freddy Greaves (Plaid) said that the Welsh Assembly want a ten year strategy for education (instead of making plans year by year). He's worked in the Council, and knows how the system operates. The real problem is austerity, and low population density in rural Wales. And as services get harder to access, or further away from where people are living, families will leave the area.
Roger Williams (Lib Dem) said that the Lib Dems opposed the cuts by the Conservatives at the beginning of the last parliament. He was a school inspector at one time, and thought that federated education might be the answer for this area (by which I think he means linking the schools together while retaining separate sites). He said that there should be better integration between primary and secondary schools, and that this would also be cheaper to run.
If there is one big school in Brecon, he continued, around 150 children from the east of the county will go to Fairfield or Lady Hawkins schools, across the border in Herefordshire, and be lost to the Welsh education system.
Matthew Dorrance (Lab) said that they needed vision. It should be about improving standards and getting the best from each child regardless of their background.
Chris Carmichael (Green) was against all the testing of children. He believed that peer review would be a better system, on the grounds that teachers know the abilities of their pupils while tests are imposed from outside and are always changing. Gwernyfed is an excellent school, so closing it can only be an ideological move.
Chris Davies (Con) is also on the board of governors of Gwernyfed. He pointed out that there have been moves to close the school before, in 2005 and 2012, as part of a modernisation package put forward by the County Council (and he's also a county councillor at the moment). He is against the Welsh Assembly idea of super schools, and believes children should spend their time in the classroom, not on a bus.
Andrew, chairing the meeting, pointed out that the County Council is made up of Independent councillors, rather than having any party affiliation.

A questioner wearing a red rosette asked how could the lack of accountability in the County Council be changed?
Matthew Dorrance (Lab) recommending voting for a party rather than an Independent as a party member would more easily be held to account.
Freddy Greaves (Plaid) wants parity with Scotland for funding and to change the weighting of funding towards rural areas. He warned that more cuts were coming.
Chris Davies (Con) said that voters should vote for change. He would like to see the County Council going back to the board system, rather than the cabinet system which has replaced it.
Chris Carmichael (Green) said there are too many Independent councillors, who are unaccountable. When he stood as a town councillor, he stood as a Green, so voters would know what they were getting.
Darran Thomas (UKIP) said the coalition has run up huge debts.
Roger Williams (Lib Dem) agreed about parties being more accountable. He also mentioned the pupil premium, which means that deprived children will attract more funding for the school they attend.
Rev Charlesworth replied that there were concerns about the criteria for deciding whether a child was deprived or not. Standards that work in urban areas don't work in rural areas.

The next questioner said there was a link between education and health - the politicians don't listen to the educators or the health professionals.
Roger Williams (Lib Dem) said that the Welsh Assembly has made sure that schools in Wales can't employ unqualified teachers, as can happen in England. GPs were given powers to purchase the health services they required, and in his opinion this was a poor plan. They need managers who won't waste resources.
Darran Thomas (UKIP) agreed, and added that farmers aren't listened to either.
Freddy Greaves (Plaid) said that there was a need to remove educational bureaucracy and give teachers more time to teach. Maybe a manager should run the school, leaving the head teacher free to teach.
Matthew Dorrance (Lab) said that skills taught in schools should match better with the jobs available. Teachers should have a better status, and the opportunity to develop their teaching skills while in post.
Chris Davies (Con) made a few derogatory comments about Roger Williams which did not go down well with the audience. Then he said that power should be given back to teachers, and this meant Free Schools! Which are not allowed in Wales.
Chris Carmichael (Green) disagreed with the idea of Free Schools. Teachers at the moment are viewed negatively because of the ludicrous testing systems. They should have less paperwork and peer review rather than testing.

Mark Williams of Llanigon (I managed to get the name this time!) said that centres of excellence/super schools don't work in Powys because of the dispersed population. So what are the candidates going to do about it?
Chris Davies (Con) is against super schools. People in Brecon are concerned about an extra 500 pupils on the site of Brecon High, on a road that is already congested and also has the hospital on it. The Council plans are wrong. The Council needs to be influenced through the governing body. He also wants to see the management of Brecon High change. MPs can influence and put pressure on the County Council indirectly.
He added that Llanigon primary school being closed was wrong, too.
Matthew Dorrance (Lab) said the plan was flawed, and skewed in favour of Montgomeryshire, where most of the cabinet of the County Council come from. The community voice must be heard.
Chris Carmichael (Green) was also against the proposals. He recommended people power, but added that the MP has a platform to act, and the way to do this is to talk to parents, teachers and other interested parties.
Darran Thomas (UKIP) was also against the plans. He said that Chris Davies hadn't managed to do anything about it even though he was a governor and a county councillor, and that Labour and the Liberal Democrats hadn't helped because they just follow the whip.
Freddy Greaves (Plaid) was also against the plans. But he added that the plans had been forced on the Council by funding problems and the demographics of the area. Austerity needed to be reversed and ideas re-thought. More emphasis had to be put on the local economy and local procurement by the Council to encourage families to move into the area.
Roger Williams (Lib Dem) defended his voting record in the Commons - I got that he was proud of voting against going to war in Syria, but was distracted from the other thing he was proud of by cries of "Bedroom Tax" from the rear of the audience. He, too, was against the proposals, but his recommendation was to come up with a better alternative solution and go to the Council with that.

Rev. Charlesworth gave the closing address (only he and Roger Williams managed without the mic). He said that the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats had all been supportive. He said that this isn't about sacrificing Brecon to save Gwernyfed.
The County Council created the problem by bad management, so the plan wasn't forced on them. Gwernyfed will shout loud and engage with the consultation process, and they will make sure that the County Council follows the legal procedures (which has not been the case on other occasions). They will also be looking at alternative solutions.
Young people from Powys have to go elsewhere for further education, but he hopes they will want to come back.
The local surgery has just attracted a new GP to work there, who is looking for a house now - and the first thing he saw when he looked at the Brecon and Radnor was the story about Gwernyfed closing - so he's now looking for a house over the border in Herefordshire. So that's one example of the knock on effects of the County Council's actions.
There are bad teachers, so there needs to be some checking, but not to the extent that it is at the moment. We also need a full and balanced economy - and support from the politicians, not blame.

Next week, the debate will be about Power. Chris Davies gave his apologies, as he will be at another hustings meeting elsewhere in the constituency, but someone from the Conservatives will attend at the Globe. I think one or two of the other candidates have other meetings to attend next week as well.

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