Time for change at County Hall
Llanfyllin High School, the educational centre of our area, the heart of our local community and one of the best performing schools in the county, is once again under attack. The Powys County Council (PCC) story is this: someone told the Wales Audit Office that for the last five years, our school has been breaking PCC rules by using part of the school budget to subsidise home to school transport for students who live outside the school catchment area. They have also broken procurement rules by not putting the bus service out to tender. A shocked PCC have said that the school must pay back at least some of the money that was spent on transport, that no money can be spent on out-of-catchment transport in future and the bus service must go out to tender. That’s the PCC story. The real story is extraordinary – and very different.
We have to go back to 2011 when PCC gave up their last attempted ‘Modernisation’ of our High Schools. This was partly as a result of fierce opposition, especially from our area, but also because we had been able to show that Llanfyllin High School (LHS) was an extremely viable school. One part of that viability was the collaboration with partners at Welshpool and Llanfair which meant that LHS was able to develop a very broad curriculum which helped attract students, especially to its Sixth Form which became the largest in Powys. Attracting students from out of the catchment area benefited LHS and also benefited Powys Education Department, since schools are largely funded from government according to their numbers: more students equals more money. This extra money – much more than was spent on transporting them – made classes viable, paid teachers and educated children.
So far so clear. But now things become murky. PCC has a transport policy which says that schools can’t use their budgets to subsidise out-of-catchment transport. This should have been modified back in 2011 to ensure that the benefits to LHS and to PCC of bringing in out-of-catchment children could continue. But the policy wasn’t modified. Everyone knew LHS was using money in this way – it was there in the school budgets approved by the PCC Education Department; it was discussed in staff meetings; it was obviously evident to the Wales Audit Office. It was never hidden. There was a general understanding that a review of the transport policy was being or would be carried out which would allow the subsidising of out-of-catchment transport – which benefited everyone – to continue.
What is going on?
So why are PCC now attacking our school? Why are they insisting that some of the money that LHS has spent on subsidising this transport be paid back and that there must be no subsidising in future? LHS tried to introduce some common sense. They proposed a ceasefire: “a moratorium to enable time for both parties to fully consider the facts…..” They proposed that the status quo should continue and the moratorium should last until PCC had sorted out its new School Modernisation Plan, until parents had been consulted, consequences considered and the Education Portfolio Holder had reviewed the School Transport Policy. Common sense. Our local County Councillors – who are also LHS Governors – urged PCC to think of the children who would be affected. Cllr Darren Mayor said, “I hope that sense prevails for the sake of the continuity in the education of the young people currently being educated in LHS.” Cllr Peter Lewis said: “This is clearly the most favourable outcome for the school, the parents, the community, Powys, but most importantly, the CHILDREN.” PCC said No. What is going on?
The answer seems to be that the PCC Education and Finance Officers over the last five years are in a fix. Either they weren’t doing their jobs properly by maintaining oversight of school budgets or they ignored their own regulations and turned a blind eye to LHS spending money on out-of-catchment transport – recognising that it was benefiting schools and PCC. Either way they’re culpable. The same goes for Cabinet Education Portfolio Holders. Now the Welsh Audit Office has pointed the finger and although it seems incredible, the only conclusion you can come to is that PCC are trying to protect themselves by blaming LHS: “It’s not us – IT’S THEM!”
“Heads must roll”
Cty Cllr Darren Mayor, because he was an LHS Governor in breach of PCC rules, has felt obliged to resign from the PCC Cabinet. He’s not gone quietly though. An investigation is underway and Darren has said that heads must roll:
“I would ask that you [Council Leader Barry Thomas] and Cabinet make a commitment that any individual found wanting, is immediately removed from their position no matter the position. The individuals who the [LHS] Governing Body believes may be complicit in this intentional failure to implement Regulation 5.2 [the out-of-catchment policy] are at the very highest level. The Director of Education and the Chief Finance Officer must be held to account for either knowing about this activity or, if not, failing to have maintained enough of an oversight of their departments so as to allow this activity to prevail for over five years.”
This points the finger at Jeremy Patterson – Chief Executive and Director of Education – and at previous Director Paul Griffiths – who resigned after a very poor schools inspection report but who is still one of the chief officers at PCC, in charge of car parks and libraries amongst other things. Jeremy Patterson, who has no background in education and whose basic salary is higher than the Prime Minister’s, was the author of ‘The Leaked Letter’ to Sbectrwm – the South Wales education consultants appointed to consider the next stage in PCC’s ‘modernisation’ of our schools. We commented then that “There is no thought in his strikingly emollient letter that he or Sbectrwm might have made mistakes – the fault lies with the Cabinet and with our ‘attitude and behaviour’ in Llanfyllin. He appears alarmingly out of touch with Powys schools and their communities and this matters because if we can simply be dismissed as a bunch of rowdy yobs – no point in talking to them – then he may see this as justification for ignoring our views and simply trying to impose whatever changes he thinks appropriate.” (See Chronicle Dec 2015/Jan 2016)
Time for change
Mr Patterson has since apologised to Llanfyllin’s Mayor Ann Williams for his comments but we have to ask now: is this apology enough? We have to agree with Darren Mayor that “others no matter their position or level of responsibility within the PCC [should] consider their own position and take the appropriate action.” This shouldn’t go on. The PCC Cabinet must look to the future and give Powys schools an Education Department that they can work with. A Department that can construct a sensible transport policy; that knows about tendering rules; that doesn’t appoint inappropriate consultants. We must have an Education Department that understands education – and that really cares about our schools.
– Richard Kretchmer
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