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Tough choices for 21st century schools

In an exclusive interview with The Pembrokeshire Herald, Council Leader Jamie Adams shares his vision for the future of Pembrokeshire’s schools

A COLD grey day slowly fades into twilight as Jamie Adams sits at a desk opposite me in an office tucked away in a maze of corridors at County Hall.

We are here to talk about the 21st Century Schools programme: the ambitious and wide-ranging plans that are a significant and potentially controversial part of the County Council’s plans for the future of education in Pembrokeshire.

tough choicesIn short, local authorities have been told to look at schools with low numbers and consolidate them, to look at their estate and ways to improve it and offered the chance of limited time funding to do both. The policy gained a high-profile casualty when the former Welsh Government Education Minister, Leighton Andrews, resigned after fighting locally a policy he promoted nationally.

The Pembrokeshire Herald wanted to find out what the Council’s plans were and, in a wide-ranging interview, spoke to Jamie Adams – who chairs the authority’s 21st Century Schools Management Board – about them.

“I would not say that the position in Pembrokeshire is any more challenging than it is in other counties,” Jamie Adams begins.

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“I would rather regard it as an opportunity to shape the provision of education, and to address the problem of surplus places in our schools.

“We have twenty percent more school spaces than we have pupils to fill those spaces. Now, there are counties – I won’t name them – in which difficult decisions have been avoided in favour of the status quo. That is the easy route to take.

“For now, however, Pembrokeshire has the chance to obtain the funding to provide new buildings and new schools and to build for the future. This is a once in a generation chance to do this and I think that we should take up the challenge to shape education in our county for the better.”

He pauses and looks reflective, before continuing: “In order to build new schools, we must make some other choices. We have the opportunity to rationalize the Council’s estate. We cannot afford to operate surplus buildings or surplus space. It ties up capital.

“A good example would be youth centres, day centres, family centres: we cannot afford to keep these as single use buildings used only part of the time. We must ‘sweat the assets’ to get the most out of them. That means combining buildings’ uses to keep services affordable and buildings viable.

“We must do this in order to get the funding we need. The original 21st Century Schools scheme provided for a 70-30 split between central government and central government inputs. That is now 50-50. We have to find forty percent more of the funding than originally planned. As we are the second highest recipient of central government funding in Wales, our challenge is that much greater in terms of capacity for capital projects. We have got off to a good start and have a lot of the money in place. I am confident that within two years we will be one third of the way to our funding target in terms of releasing capital.

“As a council, our challenge over the next two to three years is to release the money tied up in existing assets that can be realised. That can only be done by a collective effort. My challenge is to convey the message that we need to move away from holding too much in buildings to do more with services.”

But what of specific schools: Johnston, for instance?

“When we first sent our exploratory bids in, they were prepared to a tight timescale as aspirational expressions of what we wanted to achieve. There was a narrow window provided by the Welsh Government. Some other Welsh councils decided not to stick their necks out, we were prepared to take the chance given.

“Since our initial expressions, we have taken the opportunity think both generally and strategically at schools and our education system in Pembrokeshire. We are focusing on three things: growth, outcomes and quality of build. We must also consider Welsh medium provision and special educational needs.

“So in terms of Johnston School, we looked again at the site. The present site is a nightmare for traffic twice a day. The streets around the school are simply not built to handle the number of cars going back and forward there. In addition, the buildings are ‘tired’ and need updating/replacing.

“While we looked originally at developing on the existing site, we decided that it was rather like trying to fit a size eight foot in a size six shoe. It is simply not going to fit. So, we have decided to find out if there are chances to develop elsewhere in Johnston.

“Secondly, we have identified an additional need for further support for special educational needs covering the area between Haverfordwest and Milford Haven and stretching inland and toward the coast. If you look at a map of the County, one location stands out as the sensible place to locate that provision: Johnston.

“In light of that revised thinking, our original proposal for Johnston School’s present site has been replaced by our wish to look at the opportunities for building a new school on a new site.”

What about Hakin and Hubberston schools?

“That’s an ongoing consultation, and I don’t want to prejudge its outcome. I point out, however, that for pre-eleven education, Estyn is looking for a single site school. Now Hakin is a split site already and Estyn want that point addressed.

“In terms of Hubberston, I do not doubt that we could make do with the existing buildings for a few more years, but the opportunity to develop our options is now. I think this is a unique chance to develop a new school on a single site.

“There are, of course, other issues: I am particularly pleased that the revised proposals incorporate the opportunity to retain faith-based education; that is to be welcomed. I am pleased that this area is bucking the trend across the county and that there is a growing young population there. In order to address that issue, we really ought to future-proof our provision now, when we have the chance. Finally, as it stands, we have three schools in very close proximity to each other and a new school on a single site makes more sense.

“At Broad Haven School we have the chance to provide a nursery and additional capacity. To an extent that is a less complicated project, as it is a much smaller school. But it fits into our strategic plan for the future provision of school places across Pembrokeshire.

“Make no mistake: we will have to make tough choices in the future as well. The Council will be moving on to consider the Angle Peninsula and the area south and west of Pembroke town. We need to consider how viable our current provision is and whether there are opportunities to use resources more efficiently there.

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