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Letter controversy overshadows consultation

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Sixth form consultation to restart: Pembrokeshire College waits for students

Sixth form consultation to restart: Pembrokeshire College waits for students

A LETTER from the principal of Pembrokeshire College, Sharron Lusher, to Council Chief Ian Westley has raised the spectre that the Welsh Government has already made a provisional decision on sixth form reorganisation in Pembrokeshire.

The purpose of the primary legislation setting out the law and regulations covering such reorganisation is that decisions are taken locally, with the Welsh Government making an independent final decision on all proposals affecting both Welsh Medium Education and sixth forms. Any sense that the Welsh Government has indicated a preference for one proposal over another would be lethal for the integrity of the whole process.

The letter, dated September 24, 2015 responds to a request that the College consider a compromise in order to try and resolve the complications that had arisen in respect of the site of Tasker-Milward School.

The letter states: “[… ]The Welsh Government has made clear their preferred solution. The College concurs with the […] Welsh Government that the proposals which have been promulgated by the Council, are the optimum solution for the County.”

The letter concludes: “The County Council in their deliberations should recognise that the compromise is suboptimal. For this reason, the Welsh Government (who have made clear their preferred solution) may not be in agreement from both an educational and financial perspective”.

We sent a copy of the letter to the Welsh Government and suggested that its content showed that far from being a disinterested party the Welsh Government has essentially directed and predetermined the outcome of any reorganisation.

Setting aside the fact that the reference to the recommendation made by the external experts’ report, we asked the Minister to comment on precisely what ‘preferred solution’ the Welsh Government has intimated it wants.

We invited the Welsh Government to make an unconditional disavowal of the letter’s content and to deny that at any stage it has told either Pembrokeshire College or Pembrokeshire County Council that it has a ‘preferred solution’.

And a Welsh Government spokesperson obliged: “The Welsh Government has consistently made clear in its communications with all parties that this is a decision for the local authority. We do not have a ‘preferred solution’ nor have we predetermined the outcome. This has been reiterated by the Welsh Government in all relevant meetings as each proposal is assessed at the appropriate time based on the evidence provided.

“Given the Minister’s role in the statutory process, it would be inappropriate to comment on the merits of any reorganisation proposals.”

Following the unconditional nature of the Welsh Government’s response, we wrote to College Principal Sharron Lusher and asked her to explain why the content of the letter was mutually exclusive with the Welsh Government statement.

The Principal responded saying: “For the avoidance of doubt, the position of the Welsh Government regarding reorganisation, set out in the statement from Huw Lewis’ office, confirms our understanding. This understanding has not changed and the reference in my letter to Ian Westley does not contradict that understanding.

“As you are aware, the context for the letter is Pembrokeshire County Council seeking a compromise solution with the Trustees of the Tasker Milward and Picton Charity, which would allow the development of a new school on the Tasker Milward site. Pembrokeshire College’s Principal and Chairman were invited to a meeting by Ian Westley on 17th September 2015, at which we were asked to consider potential solutions for the co-location of facilities.

“The reference in my letter to a ‘preferred solution’ is in this context. In discussions on governance structures for potential solutions, the Welsh Government has emphasised that any solution should minimise the duplication of activity. This was clarified fully in the meeting with Ian Westley referred to in my letter, hence the references to ‘sub optimal’ solutions, which could arise if co-location resulted in duplicated activities.”

It seems peculiar that the interpretation placed upon the letter by Ms Lusher was not duplicated in the response from the Welsh Government. Had the Welsh Government’s input merely been as Ms Lusher suggests, the question arises as to why it did not say so for itself. In addition, Ms Lusher’s comment as to what constituted the limited nature of the Welsh Government’s preferred solution leaves two questions open:

Firstly, what was the Welsh Government doing expressing any preference in a consultation in which it is supposed to take no part at all, even on the limited basis Ms Lusher suggests?

Ms Lusher’s words are suggestive of an element of foresight on the Welsh Government’s part about a decision to be made by the local authority entirely independently of both the College and the Government. The arrangements for governance post-reorganisation are part of the public consultation, not something to be the subject of a ‘preferred solution’ by the department supposed to determine it.

Secondly, and it follows from the first question and flows from the context in which the letter was sent, what other input about the mechanics of reorganisation post-consultation has the Welsh Government had?

Even the least bad answer, that the letter’s author and the Welsh Government are at cross purposes as to what constitutes ‘a preferred solution’, leaves both the College (or at least Ms Lusher) and the Welsh Government in a difficult position.

Both Ms Lusher’s letter and her subsequent statement allow the reasonable inference to be drawn that, in the context of the proposals and counter-proposals made in a live consultation, the Welsh Government made clear its ‘preferred solution’ in respect of their resolution, or at least one element to be resolved. Ms Lusher’s statement this week does nothing to conclude that issue: it is at least arguable it makes the position worse by making it clear – beyond doubt – that the Welsh Government did intervene at a crucial juncture and told the Council what it wanted.

And that goes to the heart of the good faith of the whole process: and that includes the process involving Ysgol Bro Gwaun and Ysgol Dewi Sant.

Both Ms Lusher’s letter and her response to this newspaper fatally undermine the Welsh Government’s contrary statement.

That is, if one accepts Ms Lusher’s words at their face value.

Or, indeed, those of the Welsh Government.

The Council is meeting next Thursday to discuss the next steps for the troubled consultation.

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Simon Hart MP says that First Minister is ‘reckless’ to say that the UK is ‘as it is, over’

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THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WALES, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire MP Simon Hart, said that the First Minister for Wales, Mark Drakeford is wrong to suggest that the United Kingdom has had its day in its current form.

The First Minister’s exact words were “the UK as it is; is over”.

Mr Drakeford’s has said a new union should be created to reflect a “voluntary association of four nations”.

In his conference speech, the Welsh Labour leader called for “home rule for Wales in a successful United Kingdom”.

In a strong rebuke of Mark Drakeford’s comments Simon Hart MP said on the BBC’s politics Wales programme on Sunday (Mar 7) that his suggestions was “reckless” and “an overt act of flirtation with Plaid Cymru.”

Mr Hart added: “I think he realises if he wants to remain first minister he has to do a deal with Plaid, it’s the only option on the table. He hasn’t denied that, I’ve heard.

“In order to do that he has to start making noises about the union that has to appeal to his Plaid Cymru colleagues. I think it’s quite a reckless thing.”

Mr Hart explained that the UK “benefits” Wales and that the UK-wide procurement of Covid-19 vaccines proves this. He added: “It demonstrates just one example that the UK is a positive influence but it doesn’t mean that some of the other arguments are not valid”.

Plaid Cymru wants to hold a referendum on Welsh independence if it wins May’s Senedd election, but the power to do so lies at Westminster.

There has been a growing interest in more independence for Wales in the last few years, with a huge surge in membership of the non-political Yes Cymru group since the start of the pandemic.

Plaid leader Adam Price, speaking on the same programme, said: “We sincerely believe that independence is ultimately the only sustainable way whereby Wales can achieve its incredible potential as a nation that isn’t being delivered at the moment and whereby we can achieve social and economic justice for everyone that lives in Wales.”

Giving evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee on Thursday, which The Herald was invited attended via a Zoom, Mr Drakeford explained said his idea of home-rule meant “the powers we have, and the devolution settlement we develop, would be guaranteed and would not be interfered with in the way we have seen so vividly in recent months”.

Mr Drakeford said: “I do think the effect of the pandemic and last 12 months has been to polarise opinion in Wales about how Wales should be governed.

“There are some people who take a lesson that we would be better off handing Wales back to Whitehall, there are some Conservative candidates standing in the Senedd elections who apparently take that view.

“It has undoubtedly strengthened interest in those people who believe Wales should be taken out of the United Kingdom altogether.”

The company which runs The Pembrokeshire Herald, Herald News UK, has recently launched a national news website for Wales which is sympathetic to Welsh independence.

This is something which could not have happened without a shift in feeling by many in Wales that as a nation it should have more autonomy.

Speaking on ITN’s News at Ten on Thursday (Mar 4), Herald.Wales South and West Wales Editor, Tom Sinclair said: “From our test marketing we can see that there certainly is a huge appetite for news that is about Wales, made in Wales, and owned by a company which is actually Welsh.”

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Education

Delight as foundation phase learners return to class

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PEMBROKESHIRE Headteachers have reported very positive returns to school for Foundation Phase Learners.

All Foundation Phase Learners returned to schools on Monday, March 1st and attendance has been reported at almost 90% since.

The Council’s Director for Education, Steven Richards-Downes, said: “A wide range of council services have worked together to ensure that Foundation Phase pupils have been able to return
safely to school.

“I am particularly grateful to all school staff and families for ensure that learning is now available for our youngest learners face to face.”

Headteachers remarked how schools have filled with smiles and laughter following the safe and phased return of Foundation Phase learners.

Cora O’Brien, Headteacher at Waldo Williams School in Haverfordwest emphasised how quickly learners have settled back in to a routine.

“It has been an absolute joy to hear their laughter in the playground and to observe their love of learning face to face once again. I thank everybody in the Waldo Williams School
community for working so hard to ensure that the transition went smoothly.”

Vicky Hart-Griffiths, Headteacher of Ysgol Hafan y Mor in Tenby, said: “It has been wonderful to welcome all our Foundation Phase learners back to school. They are thriving, being amongst
friends and back to a school routine.  

“All the pupils have spoken about how happy they are to have returned and it’s an absolute pleasure to welcome them back and we can’t wait until we have all our pupils back in school.

“The school feels alive again and there’s a positive buzz and laughter once again echoing throughout the school.”

Gareth Lewis, Headteacher at Broad Haven CP School said children had returned “with real enthusiasm, and have been very keen to meet up with their friends.”

Mr Lewis added: “Our parents have been very supportive and positive about the return, and those with older children are very much looking forward to a wider return to schooling.”

Mr Richards-Downes said plans were now turning to more learners returning to schools in the near future.

“We are looking to the next phases of the re-opening of schools on the 15th of March as long as the government guidelines allow.”

Further details will be released in due course.

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Pembrokeshire County Council: This week’s Leader’s coronavirus update

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PEMBROKESHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL Leader, Councillor David Simpson, has provided a further coronavirus update for Friday, 5th March as follows:

‘Welcome everyone to my weekly update.

“It is with rather a heavy heart that I tell you that it’s almost 12 months since my first statement on the coronavirus pandemic.

“On 9th March 2020, I addressed our Cabinet meeting with the following words:

“Further to the news yesterday that two people in Pembrokeshire had tested as positive for the Covid 19 virus, I am sure you will join me in wishing them both a speedy and full recovery.

“I can reassure you that our services will continue as usual, and all our employees can continue to attend to their work, appointments, schools and services as they normally would.

“We should all help protect ourselves and our communities by following Public Health Wales advice, particularly around washing hands and using a tissue for symptoms associated with cold and flu and then safely disposing of it.

“I am grateful to the co-operation and hard work of all of our staff and we will provide further updates and information when we have them.

“In the meantime I can confirm that detailed planning arrangements, both internally, with partner agencies and through the Dyfed Powys Local Resilience Forum, are well underway to ensure that the Council and Pembrokeshire are as well placed as possible for whatever challenges we may face. Thank you.”

“I am sure you will join me while I take a moment now to remember all those people in Pembrokeshire and further afield, who, very sadly, passed away since I made that announcement.

“I continue to be incredibly grateful, as I’m sure you are, to everyone who is helping to beat this pandemic, working so very hard now for over a year.

“We are fortunate now to be in a position where the vaccine programme is protecting older members of our community and starting to roll out among one of the biggest groups – the over 65s and those with underlying health conditions.

“This time next week (12th March) the Welsh Government will have notified us of their plans for the next three weeks.

“In the meantime, we remain in Alert Level 4 and the stay at home message continues to be more important than ever as we reach the threshold of better times.

“I wish you all a good weekend and thank you once again to the vast majority of wonderful Pembrokeshire residents who are doing the right thing and waiting patiently at home for restrictions to lift.

“We do really appreciate your efforts and determination to help bring this pandemic to an end.”

 

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