Cabinet Member – Councillor Beca Brown
To consider a report on the above.
The Cabinet Member set out the context and the Annual Report of the Education Department for 2021-22 was presented.
Members were given an opportunity to ask questions and offer observations.
Individual members submitted the following observations: -
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Referring to page 46 of the agenda, a member noted that although there was reference to "carrying out follow-up work over the next year to ensure that the system [Schools' Categorisation according to the Welsh-medium provision] develops and is embedded in order to achieve Gwynedd's ambition in this area", that Gwynedd's ambition was not defined in the context of the categorisation, and that clarity was needed on this.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Again, referring to page 46 of the agenda, it was noted that some of the priorities for the next period were superficial, as they referred to 'ensuring' various steps, but did not explain how those steps would be implemented. The member expressed concern that we would see a further slippage in the number studying Welsh subjects in the Welsh in Education Strategic Plan (WESP), and suggested that we were in a weaker position today than we were in 2016.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Concern was expressed that the Census indicated a decrease in the numbers that acquire the Welsh language from a young age, and it was suggested that the Council should be immersing all the children who are not fluent enough in the Welsh language, rather than latecomers only.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>It was noted that de-registration was a big problem, especially since Covid, and the member asked whether it was possible for the committee to receive data on this, and have the opportunity to scrutinise why young people and families chose to de-register.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>It was noted that there were many taxi firms from Dwyfor transporting children around schools in Arfon. It was understood that there was a shortage of taxi firms in Gwynedd, but there might possibly be smaller firms who would be keen to tender, but required support to understand the process. It was suggested that this could be examined cross-departmentally by the Economy Department, as a means of supporting small businesses and reducing costs and carbon footprint simultaneously.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Concern was expressed that the special schools were already oversubscribed, with Hafod Lon already 10% above its capacity, and the member requested a discussion on this very soon, as the demand would continue to increase. They also suggested looking into the reasons for the increased demand.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>It was noted that annual reports talked about the good things and did not discuss the problematic and challenging things - it was difficult to scrutinise a document that tended to only praise.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>It was noted that the post-16 travel pass was an excellent idea, but it was important that the discussions took place with the train and bus companies to ensure that the services reached the educational establishments on time.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Referring to the comment in the report regarding children losing their oral abilities to all intents and purposes as a result of the pandemic, a member noted that they were worried about the long-term effect on these children, and emphasised that someone should be looking at what these children have lost overall due to Covid.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>A member noted that it was heart-breaking to see Welsh-speaking parents speaking English with their children, as this was completely unfair on the children and limited their opportunities for employment in this area - they greatly hoped that the schools were working very closely with parents to emphasise the importance of transferring the language to the next generation.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>It was noted (on behalf of Manon Williams, Parent/Governor Representative for Arfon, who could not be present in this meeting), that although the decisions of the Panel that discusses applications for an individual development plan should be shared with the parent and the school within a fortnight of the panel date, this did not happen in a number of cases, and that parents waited months for a decision which caused a lot of anguish for them and difficulties for the schools.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>It was noted that there was no reference in the report to the shortage of assistants, or to their importance to the education system as a whole.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>It was noted that it was a pleasure to be able to state that teachers commended the support and the advice received from the Education Department, and it was hoped that this was the general feeling across all the county's schools.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>With regard to language immersion, it was noted that the Aber Rwla project by Anni Llŷn was an example of Gwynedd pioneering and leading on learning the language.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>A member welcomed the fact that mental health and well-being was being duly addressed.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>It was suggested, after receiving initial messages in February, that it was now time for the committee to receive an update on the Post-16 Education project in Arfon.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>A member expressed a wish for the committee to receive a copy of the findings from the survey that gathered the views of headteachers and governor representatives of every secondary school in Meirionnydd on the potential challenges they faced in terms of providing quality secondary education in the area, and also the survey to find the views of learners, staff, parents and headteachers which would steer the future direction of the Meirionnydd Collaboration project.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>It was noted that the Language Charter and the Language Strategy were very lengthy and aspiring documents, and that the Council no longer had ownership of them. As such, a member questioned whether it was possible to provide a clearer brief for the schools, as some sort of fire-exit guide, explicitly stating their requirements.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Concern was expressed that children's behaviour had deteriorated badly since the pandemic, and that the stress of having to cope with incredibly challenging situations was leading to staff sickness absences, which in turn increased the demand for supply teachers, costing more.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>A member expressed concern that problems with recruiting teachers would lead to class sizes doubling which in turn would make it more difficult to hold Welsh-only lessons.
In response to the observations and questions from members, the following was noted: -
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Safeguarding had been a priority for the Department during the lockdown periods when children were not attending schools, and that all the schools had undertaken very commendable work making contact almost, if not, daily with the most vulnerable children. It was confirmed that the numbers of children not attending school for whatever reasons was increasing, and that these children fell into two cohorts – the ones who were enrolled in schools and their attendance was lower than desired for various reasons, and also the ones whom their parents had elected for them to be home educated. It was noted that the Additional Learning Needs and Inclusion Service had empowered the teams who supported those children not attending school regularly enough through the Welfare Team, and that grants had been received to strengthen the welfare service, with a robust procedure for responding to the needs. Obviously, this team responded to safeguarding needs, which were greater, as they dealt with a higher number of cases and those cases tended to be more intensive. In terms of the de-registered children, officers visited the home, with the parents' consent, to ensure the child's safety. There were examples of wonderful work by teachers to ensure children's safety. In general, with more children at home, the risk in terms of safeguarding was higher, but the team coped because of the changes to the methods of responding to the situation. Obviously, we would wish to see more children in the schools, but it was challenging for the schools to increase attendance at present, with various factors feeding into this challenge. It was further noted that the Service would be willing to submit more information to this committee about the team that supports families who home-educate their children, the scheme of work, the effect of this to date, and the relationship that has been forged with the families. It was also noted that the service had begun looking at the reasons why children de-registered, in order to try and present and identify areas and categories of young people who were more likely to de-register.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>In terms of children's behaviour since the lock-downs, the data showed a slight increase in the number of exclusions, which was a national trend following Covid. It was seen that the children who had become most disillusioned with the school experience were those who had difficulty complying with the school routine, and schools were working very hard to regain children and young people's confidence to capitalise on their education. The situation did put pressure on the Inclusion Service, but the team was coping well, jointly with schools, to address that.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The Department was continuously looking at the Welsh language. The Census figures showed that the percentage of Welsh speakers across Wales was lower than 10 years ago, but the reduction in Gwynedd appeared lower than in other counties. Nevertheless, social use of the language must be encouraged and normalised. Gwynedd was doing good work in the field, but should the data findings indicate that a particular age group required more attention, the Department would look again at the procedures.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>With regard to Gwynedd's ambition in the context of categorising schools according to the Welsh-medium provision, this was believed to be captured in the WESP, and in terms of any future slippage, or establishing some kind of action plan to supplement the statement or aspiration, much of this was also in the WESP which was behind our aspirations, or ambition. Evidently, we needed to be ambitious here, and many of the comments that were received during the consultation on the plan had been incorporated. It was also highlighted that the Minister for Education and the Welsh language had noted recently how happy he was with the plan and Gwynedd's ambition. It was further noted that this report also looked at past practices, rather than only highlighting what actions would be taken now, and the officer emphasised the need for the ambition to be owned and supported by everyone. It was believed that the ambition was there, albeit agreeing that the actions required as a result of the categorisation should be specified (although not necessarily in the Annual Report). The officer emphasised the need for all schools to move forward, and regardless of how robust the Welsh-medium provision was in those schools, they had to plan for improving this through the curriculum and formal and informal aspects. It was noted that the Census highlighted the need to examine the whole age range that came under the education system, and although Gwynedd placed a great deal of focus on the secondary sector at present, there was a need to ensure progress across the entire sector.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The officer fully agreed with the comment regarding immersion, and that the Council had a duty to immerse children whether they were latecomers or not. In Gwynedd, this happened naturally since the provision was entirely through the medium of Welsh in the foundation phase in every school bar one. It was noted that the work of the language centres had been invaluable for decades, but the restructuring of the system had led to greater flexibility and an increase in capacity, which meant that more immersion would be happening earlier on. They were seeing numerous applications arriving from schools for children who had been receiving their education in Gwynedd but had gaps in their education for various reasons, including the Covid period. The officer further noted that training on the principles of successful early immersion in the foundation phase had been provided for teachers, staff and assistants, and that they planned to continue with the provision in order to train and work alongside schools in the context of both early and late immersion. They also referred to the scheme in Bangor, where the authority was working in partnership with three schools to extend the provision. They noted that as a result of being awarded a three-year grant from the Welsh Government, a full-time teacher would be employed to support staff in the schools in the Bangor catchment area to apply the principles of early immersion in the foundation phase. This would contribute to outcomes within the WESP, and would strengthen plans, support and resources within these schools to promote the Welsh language as a medium, and its social use too of course.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The tendering process for school transport was an open process that must be followed, and could not be restricted to a certain area. There was a shortage of taxi firms in some areas, the taxis were all needed at the same time for the work, and not all firms chose to tender. They could possibly study the pattern, but it was sometimes inevitable that contracts were placed with a firm based some distance away.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The Department was fully aware of the capacity problems in the special schools, and was working on short-term and longer-term solutions which would require considerable planning. The needs had also intensified, and there was a need to strengthen the provision for the children with more severe needs in the mainstream, as well as looking at how the mainstream and special schools worked together in the case of some children. Historically, because of the condition of the former Ysgol Hafod Lon, parents had tended to choose mainstream for their children, although one might have argued by virtue of the statement that those children should have been placed in a special school. Now, however, because of the excellent resources offered in the new Ysgol Hafod Lon, they did not need as much convincing and working through the stigma of a parent not wanting to place their child in a special school. In these modern times as well, there were children living who would not have lived with their conditions previously, and although this was something to be extremely grateful for, it did also add to the pressure on the system.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>There was a great deal of work going on through the Primary Language Charter and the Secondary Language Strategy to convince parents to speak Welsh with their children, by specifically highlighting the economic advantages to the child later on in life.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Although accepting the comment regarding the importance of ensuring that transport services reach the educational establishments on time, this related to the transport infrastructure of the train and bus companies, much of which was out of the authority's hands. Despite this, discussions were taking place with Transport for Wales.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>It was accepted that the annual report read as though the Department was praising itself, but it was merely a taste of what had been done throughout the year, and all areas of work were being addressed through the performance-challenging procedure, which fed into the Cabinet Member's annual report.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Interventions had been put in place for the cohort of children who had lost out due to Covid, and these children would be mapped throughout their school life in order to ensure there was no slippage and that they reached their full potential.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>With regard to the Panel that discusses applications for an individual development plan, one of the indicators by the ALN&I Service was to ensure that the school and parent received an appropriate reply within a fortnight of applying for a referral. It was noted that this indicator showed a performance of 100%, and that the only exceptions to this had been in May and June, where the Whitsun week had meant an additional week. The only instances where a referral would take more time would be in a more complex case e.g. an application for a different setting or a parent requesting something different to be provided for the school, or where the Moderation Panel needed to return to the school to request more information to support the application. It was also noted that the schools maintained frequent contact with the Quality Officer regarding applications that had come in, or awaiting further information. It was confirmed that this response would be sent in writing to Manon Williams in her absence from this meeting.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The shortage of assistants was an increasing problem throughout Wales, but Gwynedd were leading the way in the field. The Head of Education sat on two national bodies that were looking into this, and he had aired the matter on behalf of Wales's education directors in a recent meeting where the Government was in attendance. It was acknowledged that the pay scale was not the highest, but this was subject to discussions at a national level etc. The contracts were often term-time only, and the posts themselves perhaps 15-20 hours a week, with everyone pooling in the same resource pool for the same people with the same skills. With this in mind, the Cabinet Member had asked the Department to examine the possibility of introducing additional elements to the job e.g. duties in the adult care sector, summer play schemes etc., so that the job bore a greater resemblance to a full-time 37-hour post with financial credibility. As a result of discussions between the national bodies, it was now understood that the Government were willing to look into this, and perhaps fund a pilot.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Because of how busy everyone had been politically with the Elections and establishing the new Council etc., there had not been many discussions around the Post-16 Education project in Arfon since February, but now they had resumed the Agenda, the Department would be more than willing to share the observations regarding the findings with the committee members.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The Department would be happy to share the results of the Meirionnydd Collaboration questionnaires. Recruitment was a challenge at all levels, and perhaps there was a need to think less traditionally, and consider whether we can share resources and collaborate, rather than everyone trying to reinvent the wheel.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>A brief could be provided for the schools highlighting the requirements of the Language Charter and the Language Strategy clearly and concisely. The headteachers felt in general that the questions in the Language Charter should be revised to make them more relevant to today, and in order to have ownership of them – Gwenan Ellis Jones, Welsh Language Charter Co-ordinator, was already consulting with the Government on this. In terms of the secondary sector, it was noted that an e-mail had already been sent to the schools to try to provide guidance but without overwhelming them, and that Siân Eirug, Language Strategy Coordinator (Secondary Sector) was working directly with the schools on this.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>In terms of recruitment and sickness problems in different parts of the county such as south Meirionnydd, the Department was supporting the schools as far as it could to cope.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Although the Department had hoped that the Tywyn Language Centre would be ready by January 2023, the centre had not been built unfortunately, because of a delay with planning. They had looked at the possibility of locating the centre temporarily in Ysgol Tywyn, but there was not enough space there, as pupil numbers in the school had increased. Tywyn Hall was a particularly good option in terms of the facilities, but the Department was looking for a location on school grounds, as the school headteacher was the site manager in the context of safety. As a compromise, the proposal by the Headteacher of Ysgol Bro Idris, Dolgellau to temporarily locate the centre for a term or two in that school had been accepted. It was noted that many had already registered to attend the Language Centre, and it was greatly hoped that the new Centre in Tywyn would be ready for the next academic year, if not sooner.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>With regard to the Catering and Cleaning Service's priority for the next period to work with the schools to become completely cashless, it was confirmed that they would consider the situation of parents who did not have a bank account.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>At the Chief Executive's request, one of the Corporate Directors had agreed to work with the Head of Education Department and the Area Education Officer for Arfon to look across the Council at how best to meet the overspend in the education transport budget.