LETTER BY HILARY MARCHANT MAY 2013

Annwyl Syr/Fadam,

I am writing to express my concern about the plans Powys has presented for the future of John Beddoes School in Presteigne.

I am a Presteigne resident with a daughter who is due to go to secondary school in a year’s time.  Like many parents in my situation, I have been concerned by the evidence that John Beddoes has not been performing well in recent years.  The recent Estyn inspection which put the school into “special measures” worried me at first, but when I looked more closely I felt reassured, in that the school would be able to get the help (which it had clearly needed for some time) to raise standards.

At the public meeting held recently in Presteigne, the panel pointed out that all parents want a school where their children can do well, and where they will be happy.  By all accounts, including the Estyn inspection, John Beddoes does provide well-being for its pupils.  The issue is over academic standards, and this of course is a real concern.  My elder daughter and I both attended state schools and went on from there to Cambridge, so it is very important to me that my younger daughter also has the opportunity to develop her academic potential.

For this reason, I was very pleased to see the innovative scheme put into place in John Beddoes’ case, where a successful school and its management team are able to offer assistance and guidance to an academically failing school.  It is marvellous that Newtown High School, currently performing well in the Estyn tables, have been willing and able to offer such support, and it’s clear that in a matter of weeks their support has made a huge difference to John Beddoes.

I was, however, astonished to find that Powys County Council, who applied for and implemented that scheme via funding from the Welsh Assembly, are now so ready to ditch it in favour of an untried, and very risky, policy of closing John Beddoes and merging it with Newtown High School.

At the public consultation, Powys County Council offered two options.  Although one was couched in terms of merger, both options insisted on the closure of John Beddoes as an independent entity.  Mae hwn yn syniad gwael iawn.  

There are numerous problems associated with closing John Beddoes – problems not only for Presteigne and the East Radnorshire area, but problems for Powys County Council and thus its council tax payers.  Here are a few of the problems.

1. Closing John Beddoes will effectively end Welsh education for the children in this area.  The geography of this part of Wales means that children will go to Kington, Wigmore, Hereford or Bishop’s Castle, as the schools in those places are much more accessible than those in Llandrindod or Newtown.  You cannot have failed to notice the transport difficulties caused by snow in many recent winters – schools on the other side of substantial hills are not a sensible option for our children.   So you would be consigning our children – and come to that our grandchildren – to being educated in England, and to missing out on the opportunity to receive education in the Welsh language.  

2. The upshot of this would also mean that Powys would be funding transport for children in this area to attend English schools.  At present children who go from here to England have to pay their own fares.  Powys would be responsible for the fares for all children to go outside the area.  It is possible that some parents would send their children to other schools in Wales, despite the geographical difficulties outlined above, but these schools are even further away and would cost even more to get to. This would be an ongoing funding problem for Powys council tax payers for many years into the future.

3. Ending secondary education in East Radnorshire would also have a major impact on our excellent local primary schools.  Parents wishing to enrol their children in an English secondary school will be looking at those schools’ admissions criteria, and many will opt to send their children to English feeder schools in order to maximise the chances of their children’s admission.  This will very unfairly target the local primary schools, which do such an excellent job for our children in East Radnorshire, and where our children do get the opportunity to start learning Welsh at the young age when they are most able to start absorbing the language.

These will be the effects of closure.  Both the options offered by Powys involve the closure of John Beddoes School.  To my mind, there is very little difference between the two options.  With no local governance, no separate budget, no independent identity and no separate monitoring of standards, there will be very little to encourage the survival of the John Beddoes satellite once it is put under the control of a school 33 miles away – a school which will inevitably have its own priorities and challenges, unlikely to chime with the priorities and challenges of East Radnorshire.  

The local community in East Radnorshire has been given no details of how the takeover option would work in practice – school and departmental leadership structure (heads of department and so on), the managing of sports teams across a 33 mile area, the assessment of how well each site is doing in terms of examination results and teaching, to give but a few examples.  We are being asked to make our children the guinea pigs for an experiment whose details we have not been given.  At the public consultation, the team from PCC showed a Powerpoint slide early in the evening, with a list of the concerns they knew would be important to local people.  They then proceeded to take questions, which covered many of the questions on that slide, and did not give a clear answer to a single one.  As a prospective parent, I was left feeling extremely worried that the plans had not been thought through in any detail.

The response of the panel throughout the evening was to raise the spectre of Leighton Andrews, Welsh Education Minister, as some kind of scary monster who could close schools on a whim unless he is appeased by the silence of local communities.  A bit strange, given that PCC had recently accepted £90,000 of Welsh Assembly cash to be one of the pilots for the Lead and Emerging Practitioner Scheme, which was Leighton Andrews’ own idea.  I find it hard to believe that, if the Minister was so set on closing John Beddoes, he would have been happy for John Beddoes to be part of the pilot for his own innovative scheme.  Surely any politician of his calibre would have been concerned at the impression given by a school being earmarked for closure within weeks of embarking on the 18-month Lead and Emerging Practitioner Scheme.   And surely a Welsh politician of his calibre would have been concerned at the political fallout of almost the entire school community of East Radnorshire being denied a Welsh education.

John Beddoes School at present needs help to restore it to the outstanding school it once was.  It is currently receiving much of that help, and the feedback from the process is very good.  Schools do take time to be turned around.  Estyn’s case study for school improvement is Newtown High School, which took 5 years to be transformed, under its own head and management team, without being closed and the control passed to another school.  The Lead and Emerging Practitioner Scheme still has many months to run.  After that, John Beddoes should be given its own new leadership team (the components of which are surely being developed at the moment, as part of the school’s improvement) and allowed to stand on its own feet again, as a beacon of Welsh educational excellence to attract pupils from over the English border.  

Pe bai ysgol John Beddoes yn cau, byddwch yn symud y ffin 10 milltir i’r gorllewin yn y rhan yma o Gymru, Dwyrain Maesyfed.

Yn gywir

Hilary Marchant