EDUCATION FILE: A turbulent year for education in Gwent
7:03pm Thursday 2nd January 2014 in News
2013 PROVED to be a turbulent year for Gwent’s education system, continuing a trend which began two years previously when first Blaenau Gwent, and now Monmouthshire and Torfaen councils, have seen their education departments fall into special measures.
The year has not been easy for some of the county’s schools, particularly Cwmcarn High School, which closed in October 2012 due to airborne asbestos fears, and whose troubles spilled over into 2013 as Caerphilly council and the school desperately tried to remedy the situation.
With pupils being transported back and forth to Ebbw Vale’s former Coleg Gwent campus, parents faced the possibility of their children not returning to the much-loved Cwmcarn site, and hundreds of people attended protests outside Caerphilly council offices opposing such a move.
Their voices were heard and pupils will eventually return to the site next week.
Other groups who opposed the potential closure or merger of their children’s schools did not have the same luck.
A plan by Newport council to merge Gaer Infants and Junior schools and send infants to the junior site also spurred protests, blogs and heated public meetings by parents who were adamant that they would not maintain the level of provision they’d worked for at the infants site.
The matter was referred to Welsh Government ministers, who decided to go ahead with the merger proposal, as the Argus reported in October.
A plan to merge Crindau and Brynglas primary schools in Newport was scrapped but Brynglas did close, with children from Welsh-medium primary school Ysgol Bro Teyrnon moving in from its temporary accommodation at Maindee.
An autistic unit at Brynglas school remains in place until it can move to the specially chosen facility of Gaer Infants School.
Elsewhere in Gwent, numerous schools were informed that they too faced closure to mop up thousands of surplus places and create, in some cases, much more modern campuses, such as Oakdale and Pontllanfraith comprehensive schools in Caerphilly, where it was revealed that pupils could either be sent to Blackwood or to a state-of-the-art new campus on a plateau at Oakdale Business Park.
Pontnewynydd Primary School in Torfaen needs £750,000 of backlogged maintenance investment and is earmarked for closure, with children moving to Penygarn in 2015 if the plan goes ahead.
The county councils sometimes had more on their plate than just standards in education. January 2013 saw a large quantity of laptops destined for pupils languishing in storage at Monmouthshire council, a situation which Monmouth MP David Davies branded “a fiasco”.
In the same month the Argus reported how GCSEs in Wales were to break with England as the UK Education Minister Michael Gove and the policy of the Welsh Government moved further and further apart.
It was a turbulent year politically. Leighton Andrews stepped down as Education Minister when a school in his constituency faced closure and he chose to campaign on its behalf. He was replaced by Huw Lewis.
Snow and poor weather blighted the first month of the year, and the Argus reported mass school closures across Gwent.
On February 20 it was revealed by the inspectorate Estyn that Monmouthshire council’s education department had joined Blaenau Gwent in being put under special measures, a point over which cabinet member for education Liz Hacket-Pain refused to resign.
The following month Torfaen’s cabinet member for education was replaced just days after the Argus reported that the county had also fallen into special measures, making that three out of five Gwent counties branded as failing by the inspectorate.
When in May Blaenau Gwent was once again branded as failing, AM Alun Davies requested an audience with the then Education Minister, Leighton Andrews, over the state of education in the county.
2013 was particularly notable for the establishment and implementation of the Education Achievement Service for South East Wales, known as the EAS, which was set up by the five Gwent councils with one task in mind: to drive up standards in education.
While its chief Steve Davies said he believed there would always be a place for councils in education, the Argus revealed that the EAS model is to be copied across Wales, with Gwent’s councils praised for their quick-thinking in setting it up.
But one pledge by the fledgling EAS did prove to be unachievable: a promise that no Gwent school would be in the Welsh Government’s bottom rank, band 5, turned out to be impossible as the creator of the banding system designed it so that some schools must be in the lowest tier.
The five Gwent counties no longer possess a single school deemed to be in the Welsh Government’s top flight, band 1, although many schools rose in the rankings.
A review of the number of local authorities in Wales is still under way but a report commissioned by former Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews and written by former Tony Blair adviser Robert Hill suggested that the number of education departments in Wales should be slashed from 22 to 15.
2014 is set to provide big clues as to what education in Gwent will look like for years to come.
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