A row has erupted in Carmarthenshire over plans to change a primary school from English medium to Welsh medium – with staff members said to be concerned about the future of their jobs.
A consultation exercise will take place later this month over proposals put forward by Carmarthenshire Council to introduce changes to Model Church in Wales School in Carmarthen and Ysgol y Felin in Llanelli, which would see them move towards being Welsh language schools from September 2022.
The council is focusing on immersing children in Welsh at an early age in order to create a bilingual Carmarthenshire, and the administration’s executive board has now approved a six-week consultation period, lasting from February 22 to April 4.
No decision has yet been made, but if the move does get the go-ahead it will see foundation phase pupils at both schools taught in Welsh rather than English in 18 months’ time.
However, the possibility of what would represent a huge change in the provision of education has been met with anger and confusion by staff at Model Church in Wales School, a large primary school in Carmarthen which, as of January 2020, had 429 pupils.
A letter has been drafted by staff at the school – made up of 13 teachers and 16 learning support assistants (LSAs) – which raises concerns about the potential change itself and the wisdom of launching a consultation at a time when schools are not even open due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
One member of staff, who did not wish to be named, said the proposals were only outlined in an e-mail at the end of January, while a meeting held on January 28 heard that some governors were not aware of the plans, which have left teachers and LSAs with “grave concerns” about their roles from 2022 onwards.
“We don’t know why we have been put forward for this change,” said a member of staff at Model School.
“The governors have been very supportive of the concerns raised by staff and have sent a letter to the county council. You can’t just lay this at people’s feet and say we’ve got to completely change the way we do our jobs.”
The number of pupils at the school has fallen in recent years – there were more than 500 pupils at one point – and one theory is that this move, if it goes ahead, is an attempt to boost that figure. This, however, has been met with scepticism.
“I don’t think this move would boost numbers,” said the staff member. “You already have Ysgol y Dderwen a mile away which is a fantastic Welsh language school with an excellent reputation.
“There does not seem to be the demand to change to a Welsh language school. In the report I’ve seen there is one line which says there might be an impact on job security – you can’t treat people in this way. Some of the staff are crushed.
“We are not anti-Welsh language in any way – Welsh is already taught as a core subject at the school – but this would undoubtedly have an impact on people’s jobs. It seems to me that we’re being told ‘either get on board or get out’.
“As staff we have drafted a letter to the council and asked that they consider postponing the consultation. We have got to get pupils back on track after what has been the most disruptive year both learners and staff have ever seen. There are also other big changes on the horizon in education so to have this on top of all that is incredible.
“We don’t want to end the conversation and we would welcome the possibility of looking at dual-stream education in the future, but only once we have recovered from the current situation.”
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The member of staff confirmed that a letter sent to education chiefs and school governors sets out the fact that they “unanimously disagree with the proposed changes” and want any consultation put back to 2025.
“The fear we have is that we would have to become competent and fluent Welsh speakers just to retain our jobs,” they added.
“Even the members of staff who speak Welsh agree that there is a huge difference between talking Welsh and teaching in Welsh. From what we’ve seen thus far, there is no framework laid out for how this would work – what training would be provided? How are staff going to be supported through this? If this is indeed the direction of travel for the school then surely everyone needs to be on board.
“We need to look at the issue of falling numbers but I’m not convinced that this (a change from English to Welsh language provision) is the answer at all. I think, if anything, this could damage the numbers further due to the fact that Ysgol y Dderwen is around the corner and is an established Welsh language primary school.”
The chief concern among staff appears to be that a change from English to Welsh language provision would mean, at best, a huge increase in workload to be able to adapt and, at worst, the possibility of a search for new employment at another English language school.
“I’m Welsh and I support the Welsh language, but not at all costs,” said the staff member.
“They are removing choice here. To drop this on us at this time and to hold a consultation now – when schools are closed and we continue to live in a state of lockdown – is particularly insensitive.”
Teaching and public service unions have already met with their members working at Model School. They are in agreement with staff in calling for the consultation to be scrapped and put back four years, arguing that the timing of the current consultation period might be a tactic to “push through” the changes.
They have also not ruled out the possibility of strike action.
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“The vast majority of our members are distressed, frustrated and angry that Carmarthenshire Council is proposing to change the language provision in such a short period,” a spokesman for the Carmarthenshire branch of Unison said.
“We and the teaching unions NASUWT and the NEU have met with our members at Model School, and all three unions and our members are in agreement with the Welsh Government’s drive to increase the number of Welsh Speakers but we are all opposed to the speed the council is proposing to carry out these changes.
“The council have only offered staff 2.5 hours training a week to become a fluent and competent welsh speaker by 2022 -this is totally inadequate and we are concerned that jobs will be at risk if staff don’t reach the required standard by September 2022.
“We also cannot understand why the council is proposing these changes during a pandemic when staff are rightly concerned for their health and safety, unless they think this is a good time to push through these changes. Staff worried about staying alive don’t need the added anxiety and stress of whether they will still have a job in 2022.
“On top of this teachers and teaching assistants will need to work on a new curriculum. As with any changes the council should be endeavouring to convince staff that these changes are necessary and achievable but to date they have achieved the opposite impact.
“We do not consider what is proposed as reasonable and fair and we are therefore calling on the council to reconsider the timescale they are proposing for these changes and delay the implementation until 2025. We fail to see how a proper consultation with parents can take place at present. We are asking the council to reconsider their proposals and see reason.
“If they do not we are prepared to organise opposition in the school and outside. If we feel any of our members’ jobs are at risk we will have no hesitation in balloting our members to take industrial action and will call on the other trade unions involved to do likewise.”
Carmarthenshire Council has confirmed that the matter “will be raised and discussed” at the the next meeting of the authority’s executive board on Monday.
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