This piece was contributed by Angharad Dafis, a representative of the supporters of Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Felindre.
We welcome the Welsh Language Commissioner’s far-reaching verdict that the City and County of Swansea failed to take the essential statutory step of carrying out an assessment of the effect on the Welsh language within the community before setting out to close Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Felindre. The Commissioner states:
The only possible conclusion is that the decision could have been different to the one taken.
That is if the Council had carried out a proper assessment, the school gates could still be open. As it is they are not. Rather than following the Commissioner’s recommendations to use the school for the benefit of the community and the Welsh language, the Council’s decision is to sell the school at auction in London.
We hope that the Commissioner’s verdict will serve as a warning to other impetuous local authorities throughout Wales. Rural Welsh-medium schools are national establishments in their own right and maintaining them is crucial to the future of the Welsh language, particularly when market forces can change the linguistic and social fabric of communities overnight.
Since the Commissioner does not have the power to overturn the decision to close the school, the statement has come too late in the case of Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Felindre – a school located in the Parsel Mawr – the community with the largest percentage of Welsh speakers in the whole of the county of Swansea, 38% compared to 11% throughout the county. Felindre village is the most Welsh-speaking of all the villages of the Parsel Mawr and the percentage there is therefore greater than the 38%. Closing the last rural Welsh-medium school in the most Welsh-speaking village in the county of Swansea will no doubt change the nature of the community for ever.
In legislation dealing with anything apart from the Welsh language, the Council would have had to pay for their wrongdoing by choosing to go against the guidelines and rules. There is not a robust enough system in place to prevent bodies like this from operating heedlessly towards Welsh-speaking communities.
Since the only thing that would deter the Council would be a legal challenge in court and that they assumed that the Commissioner’s powers weren’t far-reaching enough to take on such a challenge, they proceeded mercilessly with the closure, ignoring appeals on them to wait until the Commissioner had carried out his enquiry. By the time the Commissioner had published his final report, more than a year had passed and the school has already been shut for a full school term.
- The Commissioner should have the power to stop the closure of rural Welsh-medium schools until he has completed his enquiry.
- He should also have the power to reverse the decision if due process was not followed (as in the case of Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Felindre where the educational and linguistic failures on the part of the Council were numerous).
- Ysgol Felindre was closed under the guise of providing comparatively few extra places in schools that already existed. These few extra places do not justify losing a Welsh-medium school in a traditionally Welsh-speaking village.
- The Council and others were extremely short-sighted over a period of a quarter of a century in failing to see what a priceless resource they had in Felindre for the growth of Welsh language education and the viability of the Welsh language throughout the county.
- The Welsh Language Commissioner needs to be able to impose proper sanctions on Councils who do such wrongs particularly those where there are attitudes opposed to the Welsh language as seems to be the case in the City and County of Swansea. Otherwise they will continue to work the system and to operate against the well-being of the Welsh language. Announcing that the Council has broken a host of Welsh language standards after the horse has bolted cannot be regarded as a serious sanction. There is no other small rural Welsh-medium school left in the county of Swansea for the council to shut.
- The Commissioner has declared the importance of considering measures to mitigate some of the negative effects of the school’s closure including the following:
Fund initiatives or activities led by the Menter Iaith
Ensure that school facilities and resources continue to be available to the community in order, for example, to be a meeting place or a base for accessing local services such as a library service, access to information technology etc
Council guidance or support for the community to enable them to set up social enterprises for the benefit of the community.
The Council’s decision to sell the school at an auction at ten o’clock in the morning at the Intercontinental Hotel, Park Lane, London on 13th February 2020 can hardly be said to be in keeping with the above suggestion. Selling the school by Allsop auctioneers will the Council believe bring the best value for money to city and county taxpayers. This shows how little they appreciate the value of Welsh-speaking communities and how little value they place on such communities. In the meantime, the Council has pledged to spend several millions on creating more concrete towers in the centre of the city. They will doubtless not even spare any small change for the rural community of Felindre.
Brazenly the leader of the Council Rob Stuart has written to the First Minister Mark Drakeford questioning whether the enquiry into Swansea Council’s failings to comply with the Welsh Language Measure was good use of public money. If Swansea Council had not broken the law in the first place, it would not be necessary to involve the Welsh Language Commissioner. It is as if Swansea Council, unlike its Council tax payers, need not comply with the law of the land.
The Council has not learnt its lesson. It should have consulted and carried out an assessment on what impact selling the building at an auction in London rather than using it for community purposes would have on the Welsh language. They failed to do that, and thus they continue to hold the language and its speakers in complete and utter contempt. A further complaint has been presented to the Welsh Language Commissioner. But the result will be no different. The cogs move too slowly to save the Welsh language and its communities from being eliminated. If the Welsh Language Commissioner decides to hold an enquiry into this latest failing on behalf of the Council, by the time this comes to pass, the school will have long been sold. This underlines the need to grapple with the severe failings of the Welsh Language Measure. If it does not succeed in doing what it says on the tin, it needs to be reformed.
Every act, guideline, code, Education Minister and body has failed in the case of Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Felindre. The Council has had a licence to ignore and go against the whole lot. The closure of the school is to the detriment of the Welsh language and its speakers.
A million Welsh language speakers is a fool’s paradise when institutions such as Swansea Council are given free rein to disregard the cultural and linguistic wealth of generations of people in a particular locality at the bat of an eyelid. The demise of the language is happening before our eyes territory by territory. We must speak out.
Illustration by Esyllt Lewis, from the book Mawr a Cherddi Eraill by Dyfan Lewis
Update 20 March 2020: Safeguarding Welsh-medium schools and their communities
Last week, the Welsh Language Commissioner was finally allowed to publish his ruling and report, in which he found that Swansea council failed in its statutory duty to consider and assess the impact of the closure of Felindre school on Welsh as a community language. The fact that the ruling and report came too late to save Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Felindre, and ultimately the Welsh Language community in which it is rooted, prompts the question whether the Welsh Language Measure in its present condition is fit for purpose?
Currently the Welsh language Measure’s statutory rules favour the vested interests of Councils to the detriment of their council tax payers. Councils are afforded unreasonably long time-scales to respond to complaints made by members of the public as well as to the proposed reports of the Commissioner and to appeal against them. In the case of the City and County of Swansea, the complaint was sent to the Commissioner in December 2018 and the Council received the Commissioner’s first draft report in August 2019. The Commissioner presented his final report before the end of January 2020 but he had to wait another six weeks before being allowed to make a public announcement in case the Council wanted to appeal. The gap between the end of January and the beginning of March allowed the Council to absolve themselves of any responsibility, regardless of the Commissioner’s ruling, by flogging the building at an auction in London.
A Welsh Language Measure and standards designed in such a way that it is too late to save a school even if the Commissioner rules against a County Council does not amount to a meaningful dispensation. Nor should the basic principle of natural justice be undermined by the duration of the process. Furthermore, having decided that the City and County of Swansea’s process was basically flawed, the Commissioner should have had the power to reverse the decision to shut the school, particularly since the Council was fully aware of the Commissioner’s decision and of the content of the report but still decided, brazenly and single-mindedly to go ahead and rid themselves of the school building.
A moral victory is of hardly any comfort when frail communities are given such a savage blow.
How then can the present situation be improved and what steps can be taken to ensure that Welsh-speaking communities are treated with the respect they deserve as they would be if they were a vulnerable species?
The law is in dire need of reform so that it is not possible to initiate the process of consulting about closing a Welsh-medium School unless the effect of doing so on Welsh as a community language has been considered and the Commissioner is satisfied that the process should go ahead. The Council would be under a duty to consult on and investigate that effect, and to publish a detailed report. Only if the Commissioner is satisfied that any prospective closure would have no detrimental effect on Welsh as a community language would the Council be allowed to carry on with the process. The Commissioner would have the power to make recommendations about safeguarding Welsh in that community, whether as a result of a decision to close or otherwise, and the Council would be under a duty to comply with the Commissioner’s recommendations whether or not the process went ahead. The Welsh Language Measure and standards are not suitable for this procedure. It needs to be made a preliminary statutory part of any proposal to reorganise and close schools by amendment of the education legislation.
I would call on everyone who wants to see the language prosper as a living thriving language within our communites to demand urgently that the law is strengthened together with the Welsh language Commissioner’s powers so that the language may be given proper protection and its speakers afforded real rights, rather than ones confined to the paper on which they are written.