Major shake-up in store for Bridgend’s schools?

                                                                  (Pic: Bridgend County Borough Council)

Back in August 2014, Bridgend Council (BCBC) set up a special task group to look at the long-term future of how schools are managed and run in the county. This includes a reform of post-16 education (sixth forms) as well as how schools are organised – which could result in the closure or amalgamation of several schools and sixth forms.

An update on what the task group are working on formed a key part of a recent meeting of BCBC’s Children & Young People’s Scrutiny Committee – where councillors were presented with the snazzily-tiled report Strategic Review into the Development and Rationalisation of the Curriculum and Estate Provision of Primary, Secondary and Post-16 Education (pdf).

The Issues

  • Falling pupil rolls – It’s a problem schools across Wales are having to deal with. Some schools are seriously under-capacity, putting their long-term future at risk. Others – particularly some Welsh-medium schools and schools on new family-friendly estates, like Maes-yr-Haul Primary in Broadlands – are overcrowded due to increased demand for a limited number of spaces.
  • Staffing Issues – An unspecified number of headteachers are nearing retirement age.
  • Finance – Another issue all schools are having to deal with as local authorities deal with budget cuts. (See also: Seven Bridgend Schools in the Red.)
  • 21stCentury Schools Programme – A Wales-wide initiative to replace school buildings, which also provides an opportunity to rethink where and how schools are arranged. The most recent example in the county is the newlyopened Coety Primary at Parc Derwen.

The Welsh Goverment are pressing schools to consider alternative management arrangements, and have set out guidance on how to “federate”schools, as well as passing a law – the School Standards and Organisation Act 2013 – to deal with the often controversial issue of closing or merging smaller schools.

The Provisional Ideas

It’s worth emphasising from the start that these are only working proposals and there’s absolutely nothing final, but it does give you a good idea of what might be coming down the line as the task group continue their work.

School Organisation

  • School closures and mergers – BCBC are already considering this, notably the merger between Betws and Tynyheol Primaries in the Garw Valley.
  • All-through schools – Where 3-16/3-19 year olds are taught in the same campus.
  • Federated schools – Where schools share headteachers/leadership arrangements.

Post-16 Education

This is potentially the most explosive issue as the prospect of sixth form closures in Bridgend is raised for the first time. This has been proposed in other local authorities in Wales, and sometimes heavily resisted. It’s said that, following consultation with schools and other providers, the current model can’t remain due to funding cuts.

Welsh-Medium (WM) EducationThere are two outline suggestions :

  • A starter class in an under-capacity English-medium school to deal with overcrowding at Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Bro Ogwr, which serves Bridgend town.
  • Collaboration with WM schools in Rhondda Cynon Taf and Bridgend College to deliver post-16 WM courses.

Feasibility work is already being undertaken on the latter.

Catchment Area Changes

The catchment areas should match the capacity of the nearest school. This could mean much bigger catchment areas, or even splits in current catchment areas – like at Maes-yr-Haul, where pupils who live in certain parts of Broadlands now have to attend Trelales Primary in Laleston even if Maes-y-Haul is geographically closer. It was also suggested that homes should be assigned a catchment area based on proximity to a safe walking/cycling route to school.

21st Century Schools Programme

The task group have come up with a formula to determine which schools are in the most need of upgrades or replacements. However, this work will need to be tied to the future management of schools (federated schools, all-through schools etc.).

As a result of all this, the report recommends that a strategic partner be found to review the plans and make a series of formal recommendations to BCBC’s cabinet in the future, with Bridgend College part-funding the estimated £20,000 cost of the review.

What Next?

There’s a potential storm brewing here – especially if sixth forms are threatened or parents object to sending their children to an “all-through school”. I don’t think the ideas should be dismissed out of hand and once a final review is produced, any proposals deserve to be considered on their own merits.

Some of these principles – like those relating to catchment areas – make sense when you’re looking at it from a top-down view, but on the ground you could end up with next door neighbours attending different schools if any new catchment areas aren’t flexible enough, as happens in Broadlands now.

My personal opinion is that, in the long-term, all post-16/pre-university education should be provided through FE colleges (or some sort of collaborative arrangement for WM-schools). This happens in Neath Port Talbot which, for a relatively deprived local authority, consistently produces good academic results and provides learners which many more choices with regard what they can study. NPT College offers at least 40 subjects at A-Level or equivalent; I’d be surprised if any of Bridgend’s sixth forms offer more than 25.

However, Bridgend College simply isn’t big enough to provide A-Level courses alongside vocational ones, and it would require a serious investment – possibly a completely new campus or even a merger – to see it through; plus all the additional costs like transport and hiring qualified staff.