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Education

Castle School in Haverfordwest to close in July

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CASTLE SCHOOL, a private school for children of all ages in Haverfordwest, has announced it will close at the end of this academic year, a decision that has left parents and pupils shocked and dismayed.

Principal Harriet Harrison delivered the news in an email to parents, marking the culmination of a period filled with uncertainty, leadership changes, and a steady decline in pupil numbers. This email was just days after a previous email from the school stating that it was to remain open.

She said: “If you need to focus your frustrations, disappointment and any anger please let that be at me. I am more than happy to meet with any parent to further explain this difficult decision.”

Founded in 2009 by Mrs. Harrison, Castle School carved out a niche for itself by championing a holistic approach to education, consistently delivering strong GCSE results, and fostering an inclusive, family-oriented environment.

Despite the challenges of relocation from Narberth in 2020 and navigating the complexities of the post-pandemic landscape, the school endeavored to retain the essence of its ethos, focusing on creating a safe, engaging, and thriving space for its pupils.

The school’s recent history, however, has been less than stable. The departure of the previous headmaster, Mike Hughes, was one turning point, exacerbating existing issues and contributing to a growing atmosphere of discontent among the school community.

Hughes’ exit left a void that further strained the school’s operations and morale, with many families choosing to leave in search of more stable educational environments.

In her heartfelt announcement, Principal Harrison cited several factors behind the difficult decision to close Castle School.

The loss of key leadership team members, the financial and operational challenges of managing multiple school inspections, and the unsuccessful transition to a new management model have all taken their toll.

The school’s attempt to focus on its core 3-16 provision by shutting the sixth form and nursery proved to be a tipping point for many families, leading to a critical reduction in student numbers.

The response from parents to the closure news has been one of anger and frustration. Many feel let down by the school’s leadership, voicing their concerns over the lack of communication and perceived neglect of their children’s educational welfare in these trying times. Despite Mrs Harrison’s appeal for understanding and her commitment to support the students through this transition, some parents are clearly upset.

One mum, who asked this newspaper not to be named said: “Things have been up in the air for so long, and now the school has announced it is closing I am worried if my children are going to learn anything with the lack of teachers and classes being amalgamated.

“In short this is a huge mess and I think that all the pupils are going to miss out getting a decent education this year.”

Another parent said: “This is very upsetting and very shocking, unless I move work I am not sure now where I am going to send my child in September.”

As the school community faces this upheaval, efforts are being made to ensure a smooth transition for the students.

Mrs Harrison outlined plans for the remaining months, including the amalgamation of classes and a series of celebratory and transitional events, designed to provide a sense of closure and positivity for students and staff alike.

Looking towards the future, The Herald has learned that numerous parents are exploring alternatives, with many considering Red Hill School as a viable option for their children’s continued education.

It is expected that a significant portion of Castle School’s student body will transfer to Red Hill School in September, in the hope of finding a stable and nurturing environment that aligns with Castle School’s values.

The future now remains on ensuring the well-being and future prospects of the students.

UPDATE – FEB 5, 2024

As a result of last week’s announcement, Nant-y-Cwm Steiner School in Llanycefn says it has already received a number of enquiries from Castle School families. Consequently, we will be holding an additional Open Day to accommodate the Castle School community.

A spokesperson for Nant-y-Cwm said: “We have a limited number of spaces still available, so please get in touch to book your place.”

“We feel that many of the values and educational principles that led you to choose Castle School for your child’s early years and primary education are shared with Nant-y-Cwm. We are an independent school located in a wooded valley a few miles South of Maenclochog.

“We currently have just over 80 students aged 3-14 and have limited spaces in both our early years Kindergarten (3-6) and in some classes in our main school (6-14).”

“We would be very happy to talk through any questions you may have about Nant-y-Cwm or Waldorf education as well as arrange a visit or taster for your child/ren. Please do get in contact if you think your child might benefit from what Nant-y-Cwm has to offer.”

Education

Estyn decision to scrap headline gradings has ‘lifted a burden’ on schools

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Estyn’s decision to remove gradings such as “excellent”, “adequate” or “needs improvement” from inspection reports has lifted a burden on schools, a committee heard.

Owen Evans, Estyn’s chief inspector, told the Senedd’s education committee that feedback from schools since scrapping the headline gradings has been overwhelmingly positive.

Giving evidence on Estyn’s 2022-23 report, Mr. Evans said the new approach has led to a far more professional dialogue with schools about what’s working and what’s not.

“I think that’s been incredibly refreshing,” he said. “There are several layers of pressure that come with an Estyn inspection of a school….

“The removal of summative judgements and the fact that you’re going to be labelled with that one word, has lifted a burden on the sectors that we look at.”

‘Outlier’

However, Mr Evans stressed that removing gradings must be seen as a trial.

He said: “We are a bit of an outlier. We are still the only inspectorate in the British Isles that has removed summative judgements and a lot of eyes are on us about how this is working.”

Mr Evans, who has been in post for two years, added that Estyn is likely to carry out a review to ensure the reforms have led to further improvements.

He said it was important to introduce parental reports given the removal of gradings, suggesting that reports for learners themselves could also be on the horizon.

Asked about Estyn’s funding, which has increased from £11.5m in 2021-22 to £16m currently, Mr Evans told the committee the uplift was due to the pandemic.

‘Backlog’

He told the committee the interruption created a huge backlog and Estyn needed to increase capacity to finish its six-year cycle of inspections by the end of the current academic year.

Mr Evans said 90%-plus of the uplift has gone on additional inspections and inspectors.

Arguing the additional funding should become a part of the inspectorate’s baseline budget, he told MSs that Estyn will start visiting schools twice every six years from September.

He explained that the main inspection has been slightly curtailed, so Estyn can afford to have an interim inspection after three years rather than a “big bang” every six.

“It’s imperative the budget stays at that or slightly higher,” he said. “But we realise there’s a lot of pressure on the system – we have to demonstrate the value of what we’re doing.”

‘Self-evaluation’

Laura Anne Jones, for the Conservatives, raised concerns about an emphasis on self-evaluation, saying: “I don’t think anyone’s going to mark themselves badly.”

Laura Anne Jones MS speaking in the Senedd
South Wales East MS Laura Anne Jones MS is the Conservative shadow education minister

Mr Evans shared the shadow education minister’s concerns as he warned that self-evaluation is not yet strong enough within schools for Estyn to rely on it.

The chief inspector, who was previously S4C’s chief executive and a senior Welsh Government civil servant, warned that the pandemic continues to cast a shadow.

Mr Evans said variability between schools has widened, raising attendance as an example.

“Some are coping and some are not,” he told MSs: “I think the social contract between schools and parents has, to a degree, broken down.”

‘Stubborn’

Claire Morgan, a strategic director at Estyn, said average attendance is 87.5%, meaning pupils are missing 12 days of education in an academic year “which is far too much”.

She called for more to be done to tackle “stubborn” attendance issues, saying successful schools have a strong community focus.

Mr Evans said exclusions are rising while the number of children and young people going into pupil referral units has doubled since the pandemic.  

He said pupil referral units are no longer helping learners return to mainstream education.

He said: “The wave of anecdote I hear – from everyone from headteachers to teachers and caretakers to support staff – is behaviour, particularly out of the classroom, has worsened.”

‘Relentless’

On Wales’ poor performance in the latest Pisa results, Mr Evans said he was disappointed but not shocked as he called for a “relentless” focus on standards.

He said the results reinforce Estyn’s previous annual reports, which have long raised concerns about numeracy, science and literacy.

Mr Evans suggested a focus on the new curriculum has taken away from subject specialism.

Asked about the impact of poverty on attainment, he said the pupil development grant can make a difference but he suggested the funding is being used to plug budget gaps.

The chief inspector also raised concerns about “great deficiencies” in recruiting teachers in terms of the Welsh language and secondary school subjects such as maths.

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Education

Castle School closure certain now rescue plan has failed

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PARENTS have been informed that the highly regarded Castle School, a beacon of independent education since its establishment in 2009 in Cresselly, is on the verge of closing down, with no rescue plan in sight.

The institution, which began with a mere 22 secondary-aged pupils, saw significant growth over the years, relocating to Narberth in 2015 and later to Haverfordwest. The school, known for its broad curriculum catering to pupils from the age of three to 18, prides itself on an ‘exceptionally high academic performance’, boasting an average of 95 per cent A*-C grades at GCSE.

Despite its academic success, the school announced earlier this month that it would be shutting its doors to the majority of its pupils come July, though it will remain operational for current GCSE and A Level students until their examinations are completed the following year.

Harriet Harrison, the headteacher and proprietor, expressed that the decision to close was made with a ‘heavy heart’ and after considerable deliberation. The news has left many parents in a scramble to secure alternative educational arrangements for their children.

A glimmer of hope appeared when Dr Mark Boulcott, a local dentist and retired army officer with a daughter at the school, presented a rescue plan. “I am doing what I can as quickly as I can. I am doing my very best to stop the closure of a great school,” Dr Boulcott stated, signalling his commitment to prevent the closure.

The school was envisioned to transition into a charitable organisation, with Dr Boulcott collaborating with Mrs Harrison until the end of this academic year before assuming full leadership in July. Unfortunately, this plan has been rendered unviable, with Dr Boulcott disclosing that from a business standpoint, the school’s recovery from the Covid crisis was insurmountable under the current conditions, making the prospect of taking over ‘untenable’.

In an earnest letter to the parents, which was obtained by The Pembrokeshire Herald, Dr Boulcott lamented that the challenges of establishing the school elsewhere were too great, necessitating a considerable investment and an estimated two years to navigate bureaucratic hurdles.

“It is with regret that without immediate extensive capital investment, something we do not have, school purchase resurrection or reorganisation is impossible,” Dr Boulcott concluded in his correspondence with the parents, effectively extinguishing the last embers of hope for the school’s survival.

As the community grapples with the impending loss of Castle School, the situation underscores the continuing pressures faced by independent educational institutions in the post-pandemic landscape.

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Education

Childcare students beat to the rhythm in inspirational drumming workshop

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PEMBROKESHIRE COLLEGE’S Childcare students recently had the enriching opportunity to participate in a captivating drumming workshop led by Lox, where they not only delved into the vibrant rhythms of African drums but also gained insights into Lox’s philanthropic endeavours through his charity, Love Your Neighbour.

The workshop offered an immersive experience into Lox’s upbringing in Kenya, where drums were not just instruments but integral components of culture and community. Through engaging discussions, Lox shared his journey and shed light on the impactful work his charity undertakes, particularly in supporting social and educational projects in Kilfi, Kenya.

Lauren Owen, a Childcare lecturer at Pembrokeshire College, expressed her enthusiasm about the session, stating, “During our session with Lox, we were able to learn about the importance of music in our lives and the significance of offering musical opportunities to children. We discussed the role of music in self-expression, celebration, and community cohesion.”

Students echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the value of incorporating music into children’s developmental activities. One student remarked, “The session gave us so much to think about – valuing music as a key developmental tool for children, as well as considering the wider impact music can have on us all. A big thank you to Lox.”

The workshop not only provided an avenue for cultural exchange but also equipped students with practical insights into incorporating music into their childcare practices. They learned key musical rhythms and explored ways to integrate music for children’s holistic development, fostering creativity, expression, and social interaction.

Moreover, discussions on the barriers to education faced by young people in Kenya offered a broader perspective on global challenges and the role of education in fostering positive change.

To find out more about the Childcare courses offered at the College, please visit: www.pembrokeshire.ac.uk

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