The Erasure of Rural Wales Edges Closer

Reblogged from West Wales News Review

Policy to Revitalise Rural Areas — Where Is It?

Llansawel Show was yesterday. Sheep, poultry, ponies, giant vegetables, odd vegetables, flowers, jams, cookery, arts and crafts. Burgers (local), beer (from local pub), ice cream (local). The weather was kind, all in all a very pleasant afternoon. Most people, certainly most older people, were chatting and conducting the business of the day in Welsh.

One field to the east is Llansawel School. The word around the village is that the school will close in 2016, and under-11s will be bussed to Cwmann on the outskirts of Lampeter, between 12 and 13 miles from Llansawel village along twisty roads. The AA calculates that the journey is just on half an hour, without any stops. Add in the numerous stops made by school buses…. You get the picture.

Read on:


Fatal Impacts of Short-Term Thinking

Short-term thinking and narrow cost-benefit calculations are killing the countryside:

Schools are not self-contained financial units but are — or should be — part of the surrounding community. In rural areas especially, if the school is closed the community is damaged, sometimes fatally.

Student Debt a Disaster for Future Graduates

Repayment of student loans is already so patchy that the portents are disturbing for future repayment of the much higher loans from 2012-13.

The Student Loans Company reports[1] that, of the England-domiciled student borrowers who graduated in 2000, one in seven, 14%, earned too little in 2010-11 to have to make repayments, and another 10% were unemployed. Another 3% had ‘disappeared’ and 4% more were receiving payment holidays. That totals 31%, nearly one in three, not making repayments, 10 years after graduating. This compares with 23% who made at least one repayment in the year.

In those 10 years, 45% of the 2000 graduates had repaid their loans. We need to remember that back then, loans were much smaller than they are now, and from this September they soar again. The average value of loans taken out in 1995-96 was £1,250, and in 2000-01, £2,900.[2] From 2000, repayments have begun when annual income exceeds £15,000, at the rate of 9% of income above this threshold.

New students this September will face tuition fees of up to £9,000 and will be able to borrow up to £7,675 for living costs if they study in London, up to £4,375 outside London. This means that London students will have access to up to £16,675 in their first year, and this starts to accrue interest charges straight away.

The interest charges are going up too. They will be at the RPI on incomes under £21,000, RPI plus up to 3% on a sliding scale on incomes between £21,000 and £41,000, and RPI plus 3% on incomes over £41,000. Repayments will be at the rate of 9% of income over £21,000, but incomes below this will not escape, because interest charges will be applied and rolled up until the payment threshold is reached.

Compared with interest rates on savings – negligible in 2012 – and with the 1.5% interest rates on student loans in 2010-11 and 2011-12, the new rates will appear sky-high. As an example, the Retail Prices Index, RPI, was 3.1% in May 2012. Add 3% on top, and the rate becomes 6.1%. The new loans will remain live for 30 years, up from 25 years currently, and will be very hard to repay for graduates who  move in and out of the threshold, because the longer the loan takes to pay off, the bigger the interest bill.

Graduates today are more likely than ever to be in low-paid jobs – as waiters, bar staff, cleaners, receptionists, and the like. For the final quarter of 2011, 35.9% of workers who graduated in the previous six years were in jobs that did not require a degree, and another 9.1% were known to be unemployed.[3] Low-paid jobs and high rates of interest on student loans are not good companions.

Students should pay for their education, the argument goes, because they will benefit financially. That has never been true for all students, and becomes less true overall with each passing year.

The costs of higher education are diverging in the nations of the United Kingdom. Wales will require Welsh-domiciled students studying anywhere in the UK, and EU students studying in Wales, to pay tuition fees up to £3,465 from September 2012. In Northern Ireland, Northern Irish and EU students studying in the province will also pay no more than £3,465. In Scotland, Scottish-domiciled and EU students continue to have fee-free higher education. Devolution is leading to very different patterns of subsidy – or not – for higher education. Currently, English-domiciled students have the worst deal.

In three years’ time, students will be graduating with debts that a few years ago would have been a medium-sized mortgage. Debts of around £40,000 for students outside London, and £50,000 for students in London, will be common. Add the hefty interest rates, and the 30 years before debt is written off, and higher education transforms into a disastrous financial millstone, especially for the very many graduates who never become higher-rate taxpayers.

The electoral gains that Tony Blair’s New Labour acquired from its promise to provide higher education for half of all school-leavers have turned into a financial ball and chain that students and their families have to lug with them for decades. How could we improve matters? A few ideas: more distance learning and local study centres, so more higher education students can remain living (usually more cheaply) at home; a national investment bank – not a derivatives casino – to build up sustainable, low-impact enterprises in renewable energy, recycling, biotechnologies, water and soil management, and so on, ventures that will employ graduates (and pay them); and a clampdown on corporate tax evasion, with the recovered money invested in public services including education, which should be seen as a social necessity and not as a private consumer purchase.

Statistics from the Student Loans company, table 1(ii), borrowers who were students domiciled in England studying within the UK, and EU students studying in England.

[2] ‘Student Loan Statistics’ by Paul Bolton, House of Commons Library, June 19th 2012, Note SN/SG/1079.

[3] ‘Graduates in the Labour Market 2012’, from the Office for National Statistics, March 6th 2012.

Spend less on schools, more on the rural economy

This item is also published on West Wales News Review 

Carmarthenshire’s ‘21st Century Schools’ programme is, stripped to essentials, a plan to replace small local schools with large new ‘hub’ schools. The impetus comes from the falling numbers of school pupils. The decade April 2001 to March 2011 saw 25 closures, mainly in rural areas, and a net fall of 1,873 school places in the county.[1]  The axe is poised to continue falling on under-subscribed schools.

Caio Primary School is set to close to pupils in July 2012. By the spring term 2012 only four pupils were enrolled. The catchment area contained more children than this, but their parents opted to send them elsewhere. The explanations are politically sensitive. Your reporter has been told that the exodus is increased by parents moving in from England who reject Welsh-language education.

Originally, the decision to maintain Welsh-medium primary schools in the rural areas of Wales made sense because the rural farming communities spoke Welsh, our priceless link with Celtic civilisation. That is no longer the case in the rural tracts of Carmarthenshire with which your reporter is familiar. The last four decades of in-migration, largely from England, have changed for ever the linguistic map. Farmers retiring from the land and without a successor, and farmers who converted outbuildings into homes, have ensured a plentiful supply of desirable real estate for buyers from outside. Welsh speakers remain, of course, and some incomers enthusiastically support Welsh-medium education, but by and large their numbers are not sufficiently large to keep Welsh-medium rural schools alive.

Carmarthenshire County Council’s plans include the replacement of four surviving primaries with an area school in Cynwyl Gaeo ward, and another area school in Cwm Tywi East. The Cynwyl Gaeo school, expected to be in Llansawel, would replace Caio, Brechfa ,Talley, and the current Llansawel school. A fifth school in the cluster, Rhydcymerau, has already shut. The new school for Cwm Tywi East would replace Llangadog, Llansadwrn and Llanwrda.

Language is such a fundamental expression of identity that its decline is cultural impoverishment, but efforts to force its preservation through compulsion in education will fail unless more is done to strengthen Welsh-speaking communities, and that means a different form of planning system in which tightly defined employment zones are rejected in favour of permissions for small and medium-sized enterprises to start and grow within rural areas, so that there are many more opportunities for people of working age to find jobs locally, instead of having to move away, generally to places where English is supreme.

A major handicap of ‘21st Century Schools’ is its lack of flexibility for the future. Once an expensive new school has been built, and the redundant old schools have been sold, it will be hard for the education authority to adjust to changing needs in the future. The ‘Strategic Outline Programme’ published by Carmarthenshire in October 2010 makes the point, at the end of a section on ‘benefits, risks, dependencies and constraints’,[2] that “lack of capacity to model an uncertain and fast changing future” is one of the main risks.

The flip side of the costly ‘21st century schools’ programme may emerge to be an even more expensive ‘rural revitalisation’ programme, to spur the local food and fuel production that will be required as water and energy shortages  make imports scarcer and much dearer. There is a case for less money to be allocated to school building, and for freed-up funds to be spent in re-firing the rural economy.

Close the local school and chop the school transport service!

Free transport to and from school for students aged 16 and over is to be axed in Carmarthenshire from September 2013. That is, unless a new administration reconsiders the decision.

That’s not all. Pupils aged under 8 who live within two miles of their school, and pupils over 8 living within three miles of school, will no longer be able to travel as fare-paying passengers on registered school bus services.

The end of free transport for students aged 16 and over will save the county council £65,000 in 2013-14 and £412,000 in 2014-15, according to the budget figures. The removal of fare-paying seats on school buses will apparently save £200,000 in 2013-14.

If you live in the middle of Carmarthen, Llanelli, or Ammanford, these cuts may not seem too drastic, but in the rural north of the county, they are extremely serious. The county council still wants to press ahead with the closure of Llandovery’s high school, Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn, and impose long journeys to Ffairfach on pupils from the town and the surrounding, very rural, catchment area. Once those pupils reach 16, they will have to pay for the dubious privilege of spending two or three hours a day on buses. What an incentive to remain in education!

The ending of paid-for travel on school buses for young pupils who have to travel up to two miles, and for over-8s travelling up to three miles, would also bring new problems. How many parents these days have the time to walk with their children up to six miles on a return trip every morning, and another six miles in the afternoon? What happens if they do not have a car? If they have a child under 8 who can ride the bus and one over 8 who cannot? The rural areas do not have pavements, so children would be walking in the road. Over a century ago, before the motor age, this might have been safe, but today roads are for fast traffic, not for pedestrians. If parents decide that their only option is to drive their children to school, they will increase the demand for motor fuel and increase carbon emissions, when we know that fossil fuels are finite and that the climate is changing, and we should be doing everything possible to cut both fuel use and gas emissions.

The current county council is controlled by an Executive Board selected by the Leader, Meryl Gravell. Not one of the members of this powerful Board represents north Carmarthenshire. Perhaps that is why they agree policies that harm the rural parts of the county. Their transport and education policies conflict with national sustainability objectives which require us to move about less, unless by low-emission public transport.

The cost savings from these decisions are minor when compared with the £30 million-plus expense of building a huge super-school by the river Tywi at Ffairfach, on the other side of congested Llandeilo from Llandovery, which is 13 miles up the valley. No doubt the council would claim that the new school will be energy-efficient, but what is the point of constructing a low-carbon school if pupils rack up high-emission miles in cars and buses to get there? Not to mention the wasted hours commuting.

Story of my election campaign, part 1

Why on earth stand for election to the County Council, almost at the last minute? The prospect of delivering leaflets in heavy rain – I’ve just checked the forecast for the next two weeks – does not fill me with unbounded happiness. Yet as a member of Plaid Cymru, I want the party to gain control of Carmarthenshire and start to turn the administration in the directions of transparency, sustainability and localism. Also, there was no election in Llandovery ward last time, as there was only one candidate, Ivor Jackson of the Independent Bloc, who for the past year has been the Chair of the council.

The first task was to obtain a proposer, seconder and eight more signatures. Easy, you might think, just ask the Plaid members in the ward. Unfortunately, in the years without a Plaid councillor the local organisation had faded a little and, in the sincere belief that, like last time, there would be no Plaid candidate, Mr Jackson sought and received the backing of some seasoned Plaid supporters.

Conversations went something like this:

Me         “As a Plaid supporter, would you please consider signing my nomination papers for the county council elections?”

Response             “If only you had asked me earlier, but I have already signed for Ivor Jackson/ I have pledged to support Ivor Jackson… but you could try Mr X….”

While admiring Mr Jackson’s astuteness in gaining the support of people who, in a national election, would probably vote for Plaid Cymru, this meant a scramble to obtain the signatures in the four days remaining before nominations closed on April 4th. Plaid supporters who had not already backed Mr Jackson came up trumps, as did signatories with Green sympathies and/or concern at the coming closure of the town’s comprehensive school, Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn. The people of Llandovery feel their views counted for nothing when the county council decided that it will build a mega school near the river Tywi on the far side of Llandeilo, over 13 miles from Llandovery, and to impose long twice-daily journeys on pupils from Llandovery and beyond, as far as the border with Powys.

The nomination papers were ready on April 2nd, and the next step was to take them, with the other forms such as authorisation to use the Plaid logo, and details of my eligibility to stand, to County Hall in Carmarthen, where the identities of my signatories were checked against the electoral register. Then I was asked to await Mark James, the Chief Executive, because “Mr James always likes to see new candidates”. It turned out that Mr James had more urgent calls on his time, and I did not see him.

Papers in order, the next step was to finalise a leaflet which David Thomas at the Plaid offices in Ammanford translated into Welsh. My weak spoken and written Welsh is an embarrassment, and so I have started a crash revision course and wish I had begun earlier. The leaflets should be ready to collect in two days’ time.

The school issue is top of the agenda for many people. The county Education Department argues that there are too many surplus places, that a shiny new school would provide a better education, and that children’s education is their only concern, i.e. the fate of the town left without a publicly-funded senior school does not matter. (Llandovery is also home to the independent, fee-paying Llandovery College, but the fees of £14,085 a year for a day pupil in the senior school are unaffordable for families on ordinary incomes.)

It comes down to the purposes of education. Is it worth damaging a whole community to give pupils access to the latest educational technologies? By taking children out of their community, are you telling them ‘We are not concerned if your community declines so that in the future, there is no work for you there’? Do you use a narrow frame of reference, or consider the bigger picture?

Why not a two-site secondary school in north east Carmarthenshire?

Email sent today to Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM and Jonathan Edwards MP, suggesting a two-site secondary school for north east Carmarthenshire, a region which the county council apparently deems of little importance. The council wants to replace both Pantycelyn school, Llandovery, and Tregib school, Ffairfach, Llandeilo, with a new ‘super school’ on another site at Ffairfach.

The Carmarthen Journal, March 14th 2012, has a story on p.3 headlined: ‘Protesters lose school legal battle’, i.e. have been refused a judicial review into the processes followed by Carmarthenshire County Council as it sought to close Llandovery’s secondary school, Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn.

The story quotes council chief executive Mark James as saying: “It’s cost us money so far but we will be pursuing costs. I’m fairly hopeful that we are going to get the costs. If it goes further it could potentially get very expensive and we would be pursuing our costs.”

Councillor Clive Scourfield told the paper: “People have the right to appeal, but I would have thought the people in the north east of the county would have some common sense. Having seen what the judges have said, I would have thought they would have withdrawn it by now.”

These comments highlight several issues:

The council is using the threat of a legal claim for costs to dissuade the residents of north east Carmarthenshire from continuing to campaign against the school closure.

The ‘consultation’ about reorganisation was merely to show that a consultation process had taken place. The council took no notice of residents’ views, and regards the majority anti-closure opinion as devoid of common sense.

If Pantycelyn closes, there will be no state secondary school between Builth Wells and Ffairfach on the southern side of Llandeilo, a distance exceeding 37 miles. Think of the marathon bus journeys that children from 11 years old would have to endure, the schooldays lost during periods of bad weather, the rising costs of transport (Peak Oil has already happened), the problems faced by parents without private transport when they are asked to collect a child, or to visit the school. There is also the issue of emissions from all the extra transport.

I can see that teachers and other staff have more opportunity for career progression in large schools than in small ones,  and to achieve this could we not have a two-site campus, one school with sites in Ffairfach and Llandovery? Considerable funds have been spent on Pantycelyn in recent years, money that would be wasted if the school closed. Education is not about buildings, but about engagement in learning, and that is boosted when there is collaboration between school, family and community. Damage the community, and that pillar collapses.