Tuesday, 14 March 2017

We need to be honest about our schools

Column published in Llanelli Herald on March 10th 2017

I get sent lots of reports. To be honest I don’t read all of them - it would take up all of my time.

But I did make sure I read the annual report of the Welsh School inspectorate, Estyn, ahead of a debate in the Senedd about it this week..

There were many positives about the state of our schools - for example, 70% of the primary schools inspected this year are rated as Good or better.

There is some world class teaching in Welsh schools - in fact the Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams sung the praises of Maes y Morfa Head Joe Cudd in the Assembly debate for his passion about providing the best possible education for his pupils. There are many Heads like Mr Cudd who do not take the deprivation of their communities as an excuse for poor performance, but as a spur for excellence.

But as the Estyn report points out there is far too much variation.“The gap between providers that are doing well and those that are not is still too wide” the Chief Inspector of Schools says in his report.

I’m particularly worried that our schools aren’t equipping our children with the digital skills they’ll need to succeed. The Inspector’s report says only a “very few schools” are excelling in digital skills, and many are completely failing to equip young people with these essential skills for the modern world.

Its widely agreed that the quality of leadership is the key to high performing schools. The best Heads develop thinking skills, not just exam-sitting skills.

Being a Headteacher is an enormously challenging role. I am always amazed at the range of skills needed to be an excellent Head - a mastery of everything from the plumbing to pedagogy. You can spot a great one a mile off, and I am in awe of them.

But the Estyn report highlights that there are too many across Wales who don’t have a grip on what needs improving in their schools. And there just aren't enough of them -  I am very concerned that there are 23 schools in Carmarthenshire without their own permanent headteacher.

The Welsh Government are now making a big push on developing new Heads, and on improving teacher training.

I’d like to see a far greater emphasis on classroom assistants too. They make up almost half the school workforce and we don’t do enough to support them, or train them, and we don’t pay them enough. They are a key part of our schools and we need to nurture them if we want to improve our education system.

The lesson of the last 20 years of devolution of education policy is that we can innovate and achieve excellence, but only when we are searingly honest with ourselves about how the whole system is performing. And this year’s annual Estyn report is invaluable in reminding us that there is much still to be done.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

What would I do without my music?

Published as a column in the Llanelli Herald on March 3rd 2017

Imagine the scene: A music teacher with just 30 minutes to teach a dozen children - each with different levels of proficiency, and many playing different brass instruments.

After they’d each tuned their instruments and sorted their sheet music out there was little time left to teach them much new - let alone tailor teaching to their individual needs.

This was an example quoted to me by Gareth Kirby the Carmarthenshire Music Service co-ordinator. The experience left him frazzled, understandably. He was giving evidence to the Assembly’s Culture Committee as part of our inquiry into the state of music education. It’s a topic we’re investigating after a public vote to choose which subject we should look at.

The distinguished conductor of the Welsh Proms, Owain Arwel Hughes, described the state of music in school as a ‘crisis’. He told our committee that cuts to school budgets mean Wales is at risk of losing its reputation as a land of song. He called on the Welsh Government to do more to ensure that children learn to sing and play instruments.

As I’ve seen from my own experience the availability of music provision in schools depend enormously on the enthusiasm of the Head. In Stebonheath Primary school in the middle of Llanelli children get multiple opportunities to take part in different types of music. Whereas in other schools I’ve visited there is little or no music on offer. This is true across the country and means that many children don’t get the chance to express themselves through music at all.

Carmarthenshire has some of the highest fee levels in Wales at £57 per hour. It’s simply unaffordable to many families, and the number of schools buying into the service is declining by some 10% a year.

Organisations who run our national ensembles, like the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, warn that applications to join this year are down as fees have gone up.

We can see the impact of this is in the number of pupils who go on to study music. The number of students taking GCSE music has dropped by 25% since 2010, and the drop-off in A-Level entry is 36%.

Of course, this impacts social classes differently. 43% of children whose mother had a postgraduate degree had music lessons, compared with just 6% of children whose mother had no qualifications.

Huge talent is being wasted by our under-investment in music for all young people.

The Welsh Labour Government has announced a new National Endowment for Music with an initial contribution of £1m to cover the setup of the fund. The aim is that the fund will eventually generate at least £1m per year which will be used to fund additional music activities for young people across the country.

It is a good start but will not be enough to address the problem I have set out. I want to hear about your experiences, and any ideas you have to help the situation, so that I can feed it in to the work I am doing with the Culture Committee. My email address is Lee.Waters@assembly.Wales

Friday, 17 February 2017

Relief at Tata vote

Column published in Llanelli Herald on 24 February 2017

I felt a huge sense of relief when the news came through on Wednesday afternoon that TATA workers had voted to endorse the deal negotiated by the unions to secure the future of their plants.

In the end the majority was 75% of workers.

It would have been an economic disaster for our area if they had listened to Plaid Cymru’s call for them to vote it down. The Heavy End at Port Talbot would have closed, hundreds of workers would have lost their jobs and there would have been a big ripple effect on the whole economy.

Of course it wasn’t a black and white situation. There was understandable and justifiable anger by many older workers who felt the future they had planned, and worked for, has been taken away from them.

The events of the last year have created deep mistrust amongst many workers towards TATA. Even though it is broadly agreed that TATA have been good owners, even now committing to future investment when the UK-arm of its business is not profit making, the way that they put their plants up for sale last year and then refused to sell has created ill-feeling.

It is now up to TATA to keep its promises and invest in state of the art plant, in order to gain the most competitive edge and secure the future of the steel industry here in Llanelli and across the UK.

We also need the UK Government to recognise the huge commitment of the workers, and to start doing a lot more to support the steel industry. Tata’s senior management have been clear that the Tories have not followed through on their promises of help. In contrast to the Welsh Government who put the money on the table that enabled to deal to go ahead.

The plants can now work on the turnaround plan that TATA have agreed to fund. This includes a commitment to run two blast furnaces at Port Talbot until 2021 with an investment of around £50M.

There are still uncertainties ahead, not least the impact of Brexit. Two-thirds of what TATA makes in the UK is exported to the EU, and if the Prime Minister does not negotiate tariff-free access to the Single Market the steel products we produce could become more expensive to sell.

For me the big lesson of the last year is that we must become less reliant on the whims of international corporations. We must rebuild our local economy to grow local firms, grounded in their communities, to make us more resilient to external shocks.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Fighting Plaid cuts in Llanelli schools

Column published in Llanelli Herald on 10 February 2017

Over the last few months I’ve visited many of the schools in the Llanelli constituency. Each of them are struggling with their budgets.

Last year cuts of £3.4 million by the Plaid-led council in Carmarthenshire stretched the budgets of Llanelli school to breaking point. Despite the Welsh Government protecting the money sent to County Hall there were job losses in Bigyn, Brynteg, Dafen, Brynsierfel, Dafen, and Ysgol y Felin Primary schools.

This year local Heads were told to prepare for further cuts of 5%. I revealed these cuts in this column but Plaid Councillors wrote to the local papers to say I was fibbing.

Meanwhile the Director of Education, Gareth Morgans, wrote to Heads to say, “There is a proposal to reduce school budgets. The details of the proposals being considered by the County Council”.

Local Heads were told that they’d need to make up to 135 members of staff redundant to meet the £3.2 Million shortfall.

Still Plaid accused me of misleading.

The Heads I’ve been speaking to were in despair. The Council leadership told the public all would be well, while their officials pushed them to draw up redundancy plans.

I pleaded with Plaid to cancel the cuts after the Welsh Labour Government announced that there would be no cuts in Carmarthenshire’s overall budget next year.

With an eye on May’s Council elections the Council published their final spending plans this week.  Plaid’s press release announced "SCAREMONGERING ON EDUCATION CUTS PROVED WRONG”.

They announced they’ve found an extra £2.5m and would be giving £1.76m of it to schools. Plaid Council Leader Cllr Emlyn Dole said in the press release “We were aware of public fears due to unfounded allegations by some leading Labour politicians, who should have known better,” said.

My ‘claims’, they said, had caused ‘unnecessary alarm’.  

Well, by revealing what the Council were planning I certainly caused alarm, but it certainly wasn’t unnecessary. The pressure has led to a change in policy that will reduce the cuts schools will have to make.

But there will still be cuts. They aren’t passing on all the money they’ve found to schools. Heads will have to absorb teacher pay rises and the cost of inflation, which means they’ll have less money than this year to run their schools. There still may be job losses - on top of the cuts they had to endure last year.

And all Plaid can do is blame me for ‘scaremongering’.

This game-playing must stop, and we should put the education of our children first.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Tearing out much needed employment for the Llanelli economy

This column appeared in the Llanelli Herald on 3rd February 2016

146 people currently work in the Department for Work and Pensions office in the middle of Llanelli.

Some come from far and wide as the result of previous re-locations, but most live in the area.

These are not Job Centre roles but so-called ‘back of house’ functions. The team that are affected mostly work on dealing with sickness benefit claims, work capability assessments and crisis loans.

The Whitehall department announced last week that they want to ‘modernise their estate’. The Conservative Minister in charge in London wrote to me to tell me that because we now have “record levels of employment across Wales” - apparently -  and 80% of people who claim Jobseekers Allowance now do so online, the benefit offices need less space.

But rather than working with Carmarthenshire Council, or even the Welsh Government, to try and find better accommodation locally, the UK Government have announced they want to centralise offices in Cardiff and Pembroke Dock.

In their letter to me the DWP said workers would be offered alternative roles in “a nearby location”. Only a civil servant in London would consider Cardiff and Pembroke Dock as nearby Llanelli!

Forcing up to 146 people to add to the congestion out of Llanelli every morning will suck out even more trade and footfall from the town centre, adding further to its decline.

It is becoming clear that many would find the commute impractical and risk becoming classes as ‘surplus’ by the DWP. If no other roles can be found locally they face the risk of redundancy.

Either way the move risks tearing out much needed employment for the Llanelli economy. It flies in the face of the words of the Prime Minister that she wants to spread wealth around the UK.

I fail to see how taking jobs from one of the most deprived parts of Wales to one of the most successful parts helps with that.

I tabled an Urgent Question in the Senedd this week to urge the Welsh Government to get the Westminster DWP to re-think this badly thought through plan. Nia Griffith and I are holding a public meeting at Paddock St Community Centre on Saturday 11th February at 10.30am to organise the fight back against the DWP plan to close its Llanelli office.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

I do not envy the choice Tata workers have to make

This column appeared in the Llanelli Herald on 27th January 2016

Workers in Trostre and Port Talbot have a big decision to make on whether to accept the deal they have been offered by Tata.
Politicians have been put under pressure to keep their opinions to themselves, but I have not.

My view is that the outcome of the vote will have an impact on the whole area. If workers vote to reject the deal the Heavy End at Port Talbot will close, hundreds of workers will lose their jobs and there will be a big ripple effect on the whole economy. That is not something I can stay silent about.

I don’t blame the workers for being angry. There are steelworkers who have spent decades working seven shifts in a row; shift patterns that have ignored public holidays, just as they’ve ignored weekends and standard working weeks. I’ve been in touch with workers from Llanelli who have had to work nights and long days in highly stressful, intensely physical environments; all on the promise that at 55 they could retire on a decent pension.

And now - for many, at the eleventh hour - they feel they’re being done-over by a company they’ve understandably lost faith in. They don’t believe the guarantees, and for many who are within reach of retirement they are being asked to take a significant cut. One man described it to me as being asked to jump into a black hole whilst they whisper “we’ll catch you”.

I’ve been clear from the moment the deal was announced that this is economic blackmail by a multinational company playing off Governments and workers to try and minimise its costs and maximise its profits.
The anger is real and understandable and there’s risk that they will reject the offer. Tata need to listen to this if they want to salvage the situation.

I have met with the Chief Executive of Tata in the UK as has First Minister Carwyn Jones. And the message back is: the deal is the deal.

I have been critical of Plaid who have called on workers to reject it. They are jumping on the bandwagon of legitimate worker discontent, but it is deeply irresponsible of them to do so when they know that the impact of a No vote could decimate the industry. The livelihood of hundreds of families would be wiped out if Tata put its Welsh operations into receivership. Not only would jobs go but the pension fund would take an immediate 10% hit when it is taken into the Government’s Pension protection Fund. In fact the Allied Steel & Wire workers say they only got around 50% of their pension back after it went into the fund.

I do not envy the choice Tata workers have to make.

We need to make sure we are not put in this position again, and focus on developing jobs where we are not held to blackmail by big foreign companies.

I don't want to see division

This column appeared in the Llanelli Herald on 20th January 2016

From September 1st children in Llangennech who do not want a Welsh medium education will have to go outside their village to get it.

The move is justified by the Council because the last census showed a decline in the number of Welsh speakers in Carmarthenshire, and is part of the measures needed to achieve the Welsh Government’s target of doubling the number of Welsh speakers to 1 million by 2050.

Whilst Carmarthenshire Councillors were voting to set aside the objections from 757 people in Llangennech I was in the Senedd scrutinizing the Minister for the Welsh Language, Alun Davies, on the way Councils are converting schools like Llanegennech from Dual-Stream schools, where English and Welsh are taught side by side, into Welsh medium schools.

“We need to take great care in the way we deal with it” the Minister told me.  He and I share the ambition to ensure that all 16 year-olds are able to speak Welsh by the time they leave school, and continue to use it in everyday life. And we both want to maintain the goodwill that there has been towards the Welsh language.

I went to school in a primary much like Llanegennech, and I’ve always admired the way the children from different language backgrounds are educated together, and the way in which children who are not taught in Welsh are nonetheless exposed to the language everyday. This is in stark contrast to most primary schools where Heads struggle to recruit teachers and support staff who can speak Welsh. Children are often taught by adults who themselves not able to speak Welsh, and often leave school barely able to speak the language.

Carmarthenshire plans to turn all Dual-Stream schools into Welsh medium schools over the coming years. Where there are easily accessible English medium schools nearby this may not attract much comment, but in villages like Llanegennech there’s a risk that approach may be similarly divisive.  I don’t want to see that.

“We need different approaches in different areas” Alun Davies told the Assembly’s Culture and Welsh Language Committee this week. “I hope we can move away from negative debates and take time to reflect. Does a bilingual school deliver bilingual people? If not, why not? Let's have that debate without negativity” Alun Davies added.

I have deliberately not tried to use this issue to score points against the Plaid Cymru led Council. I do however, disagree with their approach. Rather than creating ever more Welsh medium schools I would prefer to focus on improving the quality of Welsh teaching for children who are not currently well served, and to run English medium schools into bilingual ones.

The Welsh Government will be looking at the best way of achieving its ambition of doubling the number of Welsh speakers by 2050, and I hope that the need to avoid the division we have seen in Llanegennech can be avoided.