So it’s just as we thought. When we met with Kate Evan-Hughes, Director for Children and Schools at County Hall early on Wednesday morning, it was clear within minutes that the proposal that had emerged from that extraordinary Council meeting back in January with our protest going on outside, the proposal that appeared to save YDS from closure, the proposal to keep it open as an 11-16 school but remove its 6th form, that proposal would leave YDS too small to survive. It’s what many had thought, but now we know for sure.
It may seem strange to hear that from the Director for Children and Schools at Pembrokeshire County Council, but Kate Evan-Hughes is not an elected Councillor and has no vote in the council chamber. She works for the councillors (she prefers to say that she works for the children of Pembrokeshire) and is charged with turning Council proposals into a workable education system. So it is her job to work out implications, and the implication of the proposal as it stands is that YDS would close. But that’s not the end of the story.
Public consultation on the proposal starts on March 23rd (see back page), but dialogue with schools and governors has already begun and since January things have shifted and clarified a great deal.
Even though YDS can’t survive as an 11-16 school, Kate Evan-Hughes told us that if it were to combine with local primaries under one management team that would increase its school roll and provide sufficient savings to make the amalgamated schools sustainable. There is no suggestion that there would be 3 year olds and teenagers on the one site – all sites would remain open. But, if the schools amalgamate, 3-16 education is secured on the peninsula. If they don’t, then YDS would close.
And what about A levels? The January 29th proposal was to remove the 6th forms of YDS, Ysgol Bro Gwaun, and a newly combined Sir Thomas Picton/Tasker Milward and centralise them all in a new unit at Pembrokeshire College. It looked as though the College, with a good track record on vocational training, but limited A-level experience, was suddenly going to control and take over all A-level provision. That is not the case.
What we have learned is that, although all Welsh Assembly post-16 funding would go directly to the college, the decision on how to spend it on A-levels would be made by an “A-level Committee”, made up of school heads, school governors, Director of education and County Councillors. The College itself would only allocate money for vocational courses, it would have no representation at all on the A-level committee. So control of A-levels would stay with people who have A-level experience.
But why centralise the A-level courses at all? As we reported in our first edition YDS can’t afford even the A-levels it provides now. It is breaking the rules by subsidising them from 11-16 funding, as are some other Pembrokeshire schools, as the only way to keep its 6th form going. That has to change.
KEH also pointed to the need to raise standards. The federation of schools that allows students to travel between schools and college to do the A-levels they want has increased choice, but standards have not improved. KEH said there’s not enough competition in small classes. Students think they are doing well, but only in comparison to a handful of others. She also pointed to the 25% drop-out rate on A-level courses. Students are quitting subjects altogether rather than switching to related vocational courses. All of those issues could be addressed by providing A-levels in more economical, more competitive, larger classes with the option to combine vocational and A-level courses on the same site.
But wouldn’t that inevitably leave YDS without a 6th form? There is huge public opposition that no A-levels at YDS would see the best teachers leave to teach elsewhere and reduce teaching standards lower in the school. Kate Evan-Hughes counters this by saying that there is no evidence for it (a fact supported by Schools for the Future’s own extensive but fruitless enquiries with 8 of the UK’s leading educational academics). And the Council’s plan has evolved so that teachers based in the schools could be seconded to the College just for A-level classes, giving students from 11-19 (or 3-19 in an amalgamated school) the benefit of their expertise.
Another concern is that a school without a sixth form would have no role models for the younger students, no-one to take responsibility, nothing to aspire to. This is where the Director for Children and Schools, the management team at YDS and its governors, and the Principal of the College, Sharon Lusher, are all now advocating the same potential solution – concentrate most A-levels at the College, but have a centre of excellence in a smaller number of subjects at YDS.
It raises many questions – what subjects? how many? how would you divide subjects between the schools? How would students travel between the A-level centres? And it leaves other concerns voiced to us by the community unaddressed – why should our children spend hours a day on a bus? A large school doesn’t suit everyone – our child thrives in the intimacy of YDS. So, where does that leave us?
Could we still lose YDS? Yes, unless our community’s schools amalgamate.
Could we still lose our 6th form? Yes unless we are creative and flexible and come up with solutions that work for us, the other secondaries, the college, the Council and the Welsh Assembly.
But in our meeting with Kate Evan-Hughes it was clear that she is genuinely open to community input. Her challenges are raising standards, cutting surplus places and ensuring an even provision of education across North Pembs – if our community plan solves her problems the Director for Children and Schools will be thanking us, not fighting us.