How is someone meant to feel when a local authority decides to postpone a consultation on the future of a Welsh school? That is the step taken recently by Carmarthenshire County Council in the case of both Ysgol Blaenau, and Ysgol Mynydd y Garreg. Is it relief that there appears to be an element of mercy? Or hope that the consultation will not happen at all? Or a deep feeling of unease that this is in essence merely a temporary respite from the storm? In its wake comes fearfulness and acute anxiety amongst parents, staff, pupils and residents about what lies ahead. A deep dread that it is only a matter of time before the local authority has its way.
The local authorities of Wales are bound by the Welsh Language Measure 2011 to prove their case for closing a school on the basis of the effect of such a decision on Cymraeg as a community language. That is because such a decision is a policy decision. Specific duties bind local authorities through the Compliance Notices given to them by the Welsh Language Commissioner to consider the effect on the Welsh language when consulting on a policy decision, and before making such a decision.
Despite the apparent faults of the current system, if local authorities complied appropriately with the laws that already exist, and if they operated wholeheartedly and totally objectively, free from prejudice; and if robust regulation was applied in this context, announcing a consultation would not inevitably lead to school closure. The arrangements under the Welsh Language Measure 2011 mean that local authorities have a duty to do some hard graft in considering what they are about to lose so far as Cymraeg as a community language is concerned, before deciding whether or not they are to proceed with the proposed irreversible step. It also means that they have a duty to have a firm plan in place to fill the void left if they then proceed down the same path. Time and time again however, local authorities have neglected this fundamental consideration, limiting their comments and their pondering solely to the impact on Welsh education, with no mention at all of the effect of the closure of a village school on the viability of Cymraeg as a community language.
As I mentioned, some hard graft is called for, and a detailed study of any potential detrimental effects. However it does not appear that local authorities believe that it is by the sweat of thy brow thou shalt eat bread in relation to the future of Cymraeg as a community language. Ironically, the persistence of the Welsh language as a community language has become something of a nuisance for those who see centralizing provision in new-build schools as the only beneficial route forward. A further irony is that such new builds, despite the millions spent, often create no more than a marginal increase in capacity to meet the increase in demand.
The few words about impact on Cymraeg afforded by local authorities in schools consultations seldom meet the requirements of the Welsh Language Measure. The Plaid Cymru led County Councils in Gwynedd and Carmarthenshire are alas no exception in this respect. A quick glance at the dry bones of the consultations on Abersoch, Blaenau and Mynydd y Garreg schools will show that they do not come anywhere near conforming. It is really shocking that the councils do not appear to have focused their minds, even for a moment, on the possible impact that the closure of a village school would have on Cymraeg as a community language. It is fair to question whether any local authority the length and breadth of Wales has indeed taken this duty seriously.
Anglesey County Council’s Welsh language impact assessments of Ysgolion Talwrn and y Graig go through the motions by using words that give the impression of having accomplished what is expected of them. For example, the opening section mimics the exact wording of the Welsh Language Measure itself: ‘The Isle of Anglesey County Council has adopted the principle that the Welsh language should be treated no less favourably than the English language, and that the residents of the island should be able to live their lives through the medium of Welsh if they so wish’. Nevertheless, much of the question and answer format of the assessment is more akin to primary school children being fed the answers that the authority would want to hear than a perceptive, unbiased analysis based on thorough research and specialist knowledge – which should surely be the norm. Furthermore, significantly, the consultations follow the national trend of equating ‘community’ with ‘education community’ when considering the impact on the Welsh language. There is no suggestion that either Gwynedd or Carmarthenshire County Councils have felt any kind of pressure even to give the impression that they wish to comply with any statutory obligation.
It is thus fair to ask whether local authorities throughout Wales have acted as democratic bodies in relation to the closure of ysgolion Cymraeg? Where are the examples of good practice so far as language impact consultations and assessments are concerned? Please be so kind as to shout them from the rooftops if you know of any. In the case of the current consultations on Blaenau, Mynydd y Garreg and Abersoch, there is barely a shred of evidence of the authorities having consulted or planning to consult with the local communities on the impact of closure of their village schools on the Welsh language beyond the school walls, nor any sign that they have considered this in any way. I cannot see how any councillor can come to a decision on such a crucial and significant matter as the closure of a Welsh school in a Welsh village without considering this question, even if the law were not to demand they consider it.
This couldn’t-care-less attitude of councils towards the Welsh language as a community language is evident despite the Welsh language Commissioner’s findings in the case of the closure of Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Felindre in Gower Wallicana. The Commissioner Aled Roberts found that Swansea City Council had broken a host of statutory Welsh Language Standards in the lead up to its closure of Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Felindre – most significantly in this respect was their flagrant disregard for considering and consulting on the impact of the closure of the school on the language within the community. He ruled that to confine such an assessment to the education community was totally inadequate: the council had not carried out any analysis into any likely positive or negative effects of closure on the wider community; neither was there any analysis of the demographics of the area nor of percentages or numbers of Cymraeg speakers and users. The Welsh Language Commissioner noted that a thorough analytical study could have led Swansea Council to conclude that the closure of Ysgol Felindre was a false step – the last Welsh village school in the most Cymraeg village in the whole of the county of Swansea.
After publishing his report on Felindre, Aled Roberts appeared on S4C’s nightly news programme and when questioned by Bethan Rhys Roberts, he conceded that he did not have the power to stop or reverse the decision to close the school. He emphasised nevertheless that the failure of Swansea City Council to comply with the Welsh language standards would serve as a lesson to other local authorities in future to do things properly – implying that this was the true value of his decision. Despite however requiring Swansea Council, by way of sanction, to give publicity to their failures on their own website, the Council have still not complied, and it remains to be seen, over a year later, whether this sanction and the other sanctions imposed at the time will be respected.
Swansea City Council has thus still not conformed with the Welsh Language Commissioner’s order to publicise its own failure. Unfortunately, neither has the Welsh Language Commissioner taken any steps against Swansea Council nor imposed more sanctions for this further failure. Perhaps this partly explains other local authorities’ strange attitude: if Swansea Council can ignore the Welsh Language Commissioner, why not them? Whatever the reason, local authorities throughout Wales have chosen to entirely ignore the legal requirement to consider and carry out a thorough study of the effects on Cymraeg as a community language when consulting on the future of schools. The extent to which local authorities are alive to the lessons of Felindre poses far-reaching questions also, as to the fairness and transparency and equilibrium of the current system, when they are more often than not intent on carrying out the closure of Welsh schools unhindered, all in the name of progress. Judging by the evidence of current consultations, local authorities are following Swansea City Council’s lawless lead even in those areas traditionally considered to be Welsh-speaking strongholds namely Gwynedd and Carmarthenshire where Plaid Cymru are finally wielding power. Gwynedd County Council and Carmarthenshire County Council and every other relevant local authority should be getting to grips with this now before going any further with any consultation, since it would be most unfortunate, to say the least, if they were to fall foul of the same failures as Swansea City Council, with the warning already sounded by Aled Roberts.
In the meantime, I would urge participants in consultations on the future of any Welsh schools under threat wherever they are, including Blaenau, Mynydd y Garreg and Abersoch, to present their complaints without delay, initially to the relevant local authorities and then to the Welsh Language Commissioner, if they are not entirely satisfied that the assessment of the impact on the Welsh language in the community beyond the school gates has been carried out properly and meaningfully, by the relevant authority,
After all, it is not so much the individual schools that are under scrutiny here but local authorities, the Welsh Language Commissioner, and the justice and democracy of the whole system.
Since the Welsh Language Commissioner’s website is not operating at the moment, I set out below the relevant parts of the Commissioner’s report a year ago on the ignorant decision by Swansea Council to close Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Felindre. The full version of the report is available by contacting the Welsh Language Commissioner’s office. Bold print has been applied to underline the core principles:
2.32 Standards 88, 89 and 90 require the Council to consider what effects, if any, the policy decisions would have on opportunities to use the Welsh language and on not treating the Welsh language less favorably than English.
2.33 This means that the Council should consider and identify all the relevant effects a policy decision may have on opportunities for persons to use the Welsh language, or on treating the Welsh language no less favorably than the English language.
2.34 The list below offers some factors that I believe the Council could have taken into account in assessing the impact of the proposal to close YGG Felindre to ensure that the assessment was appropriate and meaningful.
¢ _Will the proposal impact the number or percentage of people able to speak Welsh (or any other skill)?
¢ _Will the proposal impact the number or percentage of people who use Welsh?
¢ _Will it protect, promote and enrich heritage and culture within the area in question in relation to the Welsh language?
2.35 A linguistic impact assessment could also include the following in order to give due consideration to the requirements of the standard:
¢ _Identifying any positive effects on the Welsh language;
¢ _Identifying any adverse effects on the Welsh language;
¢ _Consider how the policy or practice could promote opportunities for persons to use the Welsh language more widely; and
¢ _Consider whether the policy will mean treating the Welsh language less favorably than the English language.
2.36 Having considered all of the effects, due consideration must then be given to the outcomes of those effects. Standard 89 requires a body to consider how a policy can be formulated (or how an existing policy can be revised) so that the policy decision has positive effects, or increased positive effects, on opportunities for persons to use the Welsh language, and treating the Welsh language no less favourably than the English language. Standard 90 requires the Council to consider how a policy can be formulated (or how an existing policy can be revised) so that the policy decision has no adverse effects, or decreased adverse effects, on opportunities for persons to use the Welsh language, and treating the Welsh language no less favourably than the English language.
2.37 This means that the Council must consider any options to mitigate or prevent adverse effects which a policy decision may have on the Welsh language. Consideration must also be given to the options in terms of ensuring positive effects, or increased positive effects, on opportunities for persons to use the Welsh language, and treating the Welsh language no less favourably than the English language.
2.42 I note however, that while the report discusses the positive effects of the proposal on the provision of Welsh-medium education within the county, there is no evidence that the Council considered and assessed the impact of the proposal on the Welsh language beyond education.
Consultation report: Proposal to close YGG Felindre
2.45 The report included a summary of the responses received, and the Council’s response to the matters raised. Points 40 to 49 list issues raised that related specifically to the Welsh language.
One comment refers to the linguistic demography of Mawr ward. The Council has not responded to this comment.
Welsh language Impact Assessment
2.46 Two documents were published under this title. The first document is a pre-consultation assessment, while the second document is a more recent version containing a section that discusses the representations received and the Council’s response to them.
2.49 Therefore it is only the last two paragraphs that consider the impact on the Welsh language specifically.
- Against this background and combined with the advantages listed above we believe that the proposal should result in a positive impact on Welsh language development in Swansea.
- As such, the Council is satisfied that provision for the Welsh language will be improved in Swanse
2.51 The document did not consider whether or not there were any negative elements to the proposal, nor did it attempt to identify what effect the decision the decision might be on non-education related matters in the area, such as the effect moving the school out of the community might have on local culture, local residents’ contact with the Welsh language as a result etc. It made no effort to identify whether the stated benefits to Welsh-medium education in the area is such that it outweighs other possible negative effects.
Community Impact Assessment
2.53 The document suggests that no further assessment has been carried out which looked further at the impact of the proposal on the Welsh language within the community.
Equality Impact Assessment
2.55 The document had identified that the proposal was relevant to the Welsh language. Sub-section 3: Impact on Protected Characteristics designated the impact on the Welsh language as ‘Neutral’. Looking at the document, this equates to no positive or negative impact. It goes on to state:
YGG Felindre is a Welsh-medium primary school and although the proposal is to close a Welsh-medium primary school the proposal is part of the wider Welsh in Education Strategic Plan that is looking to increase the number of places available in Swansea’s Welsh-medium schools.
The Council’s wider Welsh in Education Strategic Plan seeks to increase the number of Welsh-medium places in Swansea significantly. As a result of proposals to reach our targets we believe that this would increase opportunities for more people to use the Welsh language and ensure that the Welsh language is treated no less favourably than the English language.
It is apparent from the document that no action has been identified to address any identified gaps. The Council states:
Following the consultation officials continue to believe that this is the right decision.
The Council’s response to the investigation
2.60 Following consideration of all the evidence submitted to me by the complainant and the Council, it appears to me that the Council has considered the effect of the proposal to close YGG Felindre on Welsh-medium education. The Council has made reference on a number of occasions and in several documents that the proposal is part of the Welsh in Education Strategic Plan which plans to increase the number of pupils studying through the medium of Welsh in the county.
2.61 However, the evidence has not persuaded me that the same attention and consideration has been given to the impact of the decision on the Welsh language in a wider context. It is clear that the Council carried out a Welsh Language Impact Assessment prior to the consultation process, and that they revised the document following the findings of the consultation. However, I must consider the extent to which those assessments, when considered together, were meaningful and sufficient to ensure that the Council has implemented the requirements and objectives of the policy making standards.
2.62 The complainant claims that the school has a key role in maintaining the Welsh language in the area and in offering opportunities for people to use the Welsh language. In looking at the requirements of the standards, the Council has a duty to consider the extent to which the proposal protects, promotes and enriches the area’s heritage and culture in relation to the Welsh language.
2.63 I have already discussed the contents of the Welsh Language Impact Assessment document at paragraphs 2.33 to 2.37. I drew attention to the fact that only 2 paragraphs out of the 19 discussed the impact on the Welsh language. I conclude that paragraphs 1 to 16 discuss the reasons which led to the decision to propose the closure of YGG Felindre, rather than offering a thorough assessment of the impact of the decision. The closing paragraphs conclude that the Council believes that the proposal would result in a positive impact on the development of the Welsh language in the Swansea area, although no robust evidence is presented to support this.
2.64 The assessment does not take into account the potential impact on the Welsh language within the community or consider any effects beyond the education provision. The assessment does not take into account the use of the Welsh language in the community and the school’s contribution towards it. I would have expected to see data or information to evidence that the Council had considered the linguistic demographics of the area and that they had scrutinised and weighed up the impact of the closure on people’s language use. It is not sufficient that the Council concludes that the effect is “neutral” without also putting forward arguments or evidence in support.
2.65 Nor is there any evidence from the Welsh language Impact Assessment, or the other documents and assessments undertaken, that the Council has considered how the policy or proposal can be formulated so that it has a positive or less adverse impact on the Welsh language. Although the Council has noted that the proposal has a “neutral” effect on the Welsh language, the requirements of 89 and 90 remain relevant and in effect.
2.66 In presenting her complaint to me, the complainant referred to the ways in which the school contributes to wider community factors relating to the Welsh language. She explained that the school contributes to maintaining the Welsh language in the village by giving village residents, pupils and their parents the opportunity to come together to organize and participate in activities through the medium of Welsh.
2.67 Those examples include the Parent Teacher Association, the village eisteddfod, the St David’s Day Cawl and Twmpath event, the harvest service in the chapel, and the Christmas drama held in the village.
2.68 The complainant also explains that members of the community have been active in volunteering to raise money for the school for resources. Projects were also organized by members of the community to enable village children to compete in the Urdd eisteddfodau.
2.69 Had an appropriate assessment of the impact of the decision to close the school on the Welsh language in the community been undertaken, the Council would likely have been aware of events such as these, and been able to undertake an
assessment of the relationship between the school and the activities, and analyse the likely impact of closing the school on the community’s ability to continue to sustain them following closure, or to conduct similar activities that would enable them to continue to use the Welsh language.
2.70 Then, on the basis of the assessment, the Council would have been in a position to consider what action it could take as a result of making such an assessment. The standards make it open to the Council to continue with the decision regardless, or it may conclude that the adverse effects are so significant that it cannot proceed with the decision. The Council can also continue to make the decision in a way that would have a positive or more positive effect on the Welsh language than originally intended, or make the decision by introducing mitigation measures aimed at preventing or minimizing the adverse impact of the decision.
2.71 Proposals on how to do so should be made by the Council. Without appropriate assessment, research and findings it is not possible to predict what such proposals might be, but the examples below could be the kinds of proposals that could have been considered in a community where the Welsh language remains a part of the fabric of society:
_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
2.72 Given paragraph 2.66 it is not possible for the Welsh Language Commissioner to know what the Council’s decision might have been had it acted in accordance with the standards. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the decision could have been different to the one made.
2.73 In light of the above, I am of the view that the Welsh language Impact Assessment was not sufficient to meet the requirements of standards 88, 89 and 90. I therefore conclude that the Council has not implemented the requirements of standards 88, 89 and 90 in making its policy decision to close YGG Felindre. The Council has not considered and identified what effects its decision may have on opportunities for persons to use the Welsh language or not to treat the Welsh language less favourably than the English language. Nor has the Council considered how it can make the decision so that it has more positive, or less adverse, effects on opportunities for persons to use the Welsh language, or not to treat the Welsh language less favourably than the English language.
Determination of whether or not there has been a failure to comply with standards 88, 89 and 90
2.74 My determination is that the City and County of Swansea Council has failed to comply with standards 88, 89 and 90 in this case on the grounds that it has not fully considered the effects the decision to close YGG Felindre would have on opportunities for persons to use the Welsh language, and to treat the Welsh language no less favourably than the English language.