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School closure: More information needed

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Save our school: Protestors outside County Hall on Wednesday

Save our school: Protestors outside County Hall on Wednesday

PROTESTORS gathered outside County Hall on Wednesday (Mar 9), as the future of Ysgol Bancffosfelen was discussed by the Education and Children Scrutiny Committee.

Carmarthenshire County Council announced that it was looking to launch a statutory consultation into closing the school in 2017, and transferring the remaining pupils to Ysgol Pontyberem.

However, the committee unanimously voted in favour of a motion saying that they would be unable to offer any recommendations without visiting schools in the area, receiving more information from the authority, and studying plans from the governors to take over the running of the school through a Community Charitable Trust.

A report read at the meeting said that the Authority had ‘a legal responsibility’ to review both the type and number of schools under its control, and ‘whether or not it is making the best use of resources and facilities to deliver the opportunities that children deserve.’

The report claimed that Ysgol Bancffosfelyn had seen a ‘steady decline in pupil numbers’ over recent years – from 48 in January 2011 to 35 in January 2016 – which led to 64% of the school’s capacity being unused.

For context, the report pointed out that the Welsh Government defines a surplus of greater than 25% as ‘significant,’ and advises reviewing schools with more than 10% surplus capacity.

It was also suggested that the lack of a permanent Headteacher, when combined with the surplus capacity, presented ‘a school model which does not represent a sound, stable educational model or best use of resources.’

‘In addition, the Authority feels that from an educational perspective having such a small number of pupils makes it extremely difficult for the school to deliver the breadth and depth of curricular and social experiences which pupils of this age require to fully develop.’

The draft consultation document suggested that pupil travel costs would not be much of an issue because ‘many of the pupils attending Bancffosfelen reside within the catchment of Pontyberem.’

Both schools gained similar ratings in the National Schools Categorisation system.

The cost per pupil to the council is £4,547 at Bancffosfelen – 24% above the county average, while at Pontyberem, the cost per pupil is £3,583.

The author of the report, Simon Davies, said that 23 letters of objection to the school’s closure had been received by the council, in addition to a statement by Bancffosfelen governors and a petition signed by ‘a number of people.’

Councillor Gwyn Hopkins proposed that the committee should visit the school, and receive ‘far more details’ about the plan put forward by the Governors to for a Community Charitable Trust.

“We need more details, but it seems at the moment to be at least a possibility,” Cllr Hopkins added.

Cllr Hopkins also suggested visiting Ysgol Pontyberem.

Committee Chair Councillor Eirwyn Williams agreed that the Governors’ plan ‘at face value seems exciting and plausible.’

Councillor Mansel Charles – who admitted earlier in the meeting that he was a supporter of smaller schools – agreed. Cllr Charles also said that while it was good to see that a number of letters of support had been written, it was ‘disappointing’ that they had been received so late, meaning that committee members had been unable to read them in any detail. Cllr Charles also suggested visiting other nearby schools including Ysgol y Fro, and assessing where Bancffosfelen pupils lived in relation to the catchment areas.

Councillor Cefin Campbell said that it was encouraging to see that the Governors and friends of the school had ‘set about things in a different way,’ in looking to form a Community Charitable Trust.

“As a council, when schools go below certain numbers, we deal with it in the same way. This way breaks new ground,” he added, before emphasising that the business plan put forward would be viable in terms of building improvements, educational strategy, and pupil safety.

However, Councillor Hugh Richards suggested that as a large percentage of the pupils lived in the Pontyberem catchment area, the figures put forward relating to school use were ‘undermined’.

The committee’s decision was welcomed by Cymdeithas.

Ffred Ffransis said: “We hope the Council will instruct officers now not to just sit on their hands but to actively work with communities to establish how best to develop schools. Communities change and sometimes schools choose to close or have to close but this should be the last resort not the default position. Let this be the start of a new spirit of co-operation in the revival for Welsh speaking communities.

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Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, dies aged 99

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The Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen’s ‘strength and stay’ for 73 years, has died aged 99.

Prince Philip’s health had been slowly deteriorating for some time. He announced he was stepping down from royal engagements in May 2017, joking that he could no longer stand up. He made a final official public appearance later that year during a Royal Marines parade on the forecourt of Buckingham Palace.

Since then, he was rarely seen in public, spending most of his time on the Queen’s Sandringham estate in Norfolk, though moving to be with her at Windsor Castle during the lockdown periods throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and where the couple quietly celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary in November 2020. He also celebrated his 99th birthday in lockdown at Windsor Castle.

The duke spent four nights at King Edward VII hospital in London before Christmas 2019 for observation and treatment in relation to a “pre-existing condition”.

Despite having hip surgery in April 2018, he attended the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle a month later and was seen sitting beside the Queen at a polo match at Windsor Great Park in June. He and the Queen missed Prince Louis of Cambridge’s christening in July 2018, but he was seen attending Crathie Kirk near Balmoral in August, and driving his Land Rover in the surrounding Scottish countryside in September.

It is expected that flags on landmark buildings in Britain will be lowered to half-mast as a period of mourning is announced.

The First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford has expressed his sadness on the news of the death of His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh and offered condolences to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal family on behalf of the Welsh Government.

He said: “It is with sadness that we mourn the death of His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh. Throughout his long and distinguished life, he served the crown with selfless devotion and generosity of spirit.

We offer our sincere condolences to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, his children and their families on this sad occasion.

He will be missed by the many organisations that he supported as Patron or President over many decades of service”.Andrew RT Davies, the Leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the Senedd, has led tributes to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, whose death was announced today.

In light of the sad news from Buckingham Palace, campaigning has been paused with immediate effect.

Mr Davies said: “This is a very sad day for the United Kingdom.
“The Duke of Edinburgh led a remarkable life, excelled himself with his career in the Royal Navy, was the strength and stay to Her Majesty The Queen, and has left a legacy to the nation through the Duke of Edinburgh Award.

“Dutiful, devoted, and diligent, his like will never be seen again, and Welsh Conservatives offer their deepest condolences to The Queen, and the rest of the Royal Family.”

Adam Price, leader of Plaid Cymru said: “On behalf of Plaid Cymru, I send my condolences to Her Majesty the Queen and her family. Many young people in Wales will have benefited from the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme, a reflection of many decades of his public service. Thoughts are with the Royal Family at this time.”

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Fire Chief’s pay being formally investigated

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THE TERMS and salary of the re-employment of a Chief Fire Officer for Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service (MAWWFRS) are being formally investigated, The Herald can reveal.

We have previously reported on the re-employment of Chief Fire Officer Chris Davies following his retirement.

Cllr Gordon Walker, a former firefighter and Fire Authority member, officially raised a complaint with The Welsh Fire Minister and Auditor General for Wales regarding the terms of re-employment for the Chief Fire Officer and has been calling for an investigation since last year.

Mr Walker had written to the Fire Authority and MAWWFRS on numerous occasions asking for a review on the situation, however after failed attempts, Mr Walker sent his concerns to the Auditor General for Wales.

The issues that have been highlighted relate to the Chief Fire Officer’s pay and the policy regarding re-employment following retirement.

Chief Fire Officer Chris Davies, who retired from the service a number of years ago, has since been re-employed by Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service in a more senior role.

Due to legislation in accordance with the Authority’s Policy on Re-employment of Retired firefighters, following voluntary retirement employees may be re-engaged and have their pensions abated.

However, this will not normally exceed a one year fixed term contract to retain specialist skills or knowledge, this will not normally exceed a one year fixed term contract.

Stating section 4.4 of the policy it clearly states ‘An individual will be re-employed on the same level of basic pay pertaining to the role they hold on retirement’.

A source within the fire service told us how Chief Fire Officer, Chris Davies, despite taking voluntary retirement and receiving a lump sum payment, has been re-employed by MAWWFRS on a salary that is almost £20,000 higher than his former basic pay.

Despite government legislation that says they should be re-employed for no longer than a one year contract, Chris Davies has been re-employed in his current role for five years.

As of now there is still no succession plan in place to replace Chris Davies with MAWWFRS.

The Auditor General for Wales have confirmed that they will be running a full investigation into the salary and the terms surrounding the re-employment of Chris Davies as Chief Fire Officer.

Speaking to The Herald, Gordon Walker said: “I have put my complaint in and I can confirm that we are awaiting the results of the investigation.”

Gordon has been campaigning relentlessly to have more transparency on the re-employment of retired fire service employees, especially those re-engaged on a rank senior to that on which they left.

A spokesperson for MAWWFRS said: “Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service is aware of the allegations made by a Member of our Fire and Rescue Authority and we can confirm that we are currently working with Audit Wales as part of their investigation.

“It would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.”

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Drakeford outlines road to normality

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PUBS and restaurants can reopen outdoors on April 26, the Welsh government has said.

Outdoor attractions can also open from that date.

The changes will come into force provided coronavirus cases remain low.

Non-essential retail and all other close contact services will also reopen on April 12, as well as travel between Wales and the rest of the UK.

The announcements come before a planned review from First Minister Mark Drakeford on Thursday (Apr 1), which is being held a day early because of the Easter weekend.

He is also expected to say that gyms can re-open sometime in May, alongside allowing up to 30 people to take part in outdoor sport.

Outdoor attractions are set to reopen April 26 and ministers could also allow gyms and leisure centres to open for individual training “by early May”, alongside organised outdoor activities for up to 30 people.

Both the Welsh Conservatives and Plaid Cymru said gyms should be allowed to reopen immediately.

Mr Drakeford will set out a “series of measures” to take Wales into Level 3 by 17 May, “subject to public health conditions remaining favourable”.

Pubs, bars and restaurants have been pleading with ministers to give them dates so they can prepare to reopen.

While parts of Wales’ lockdown have eased quicker than elsewhere in the UK, the Welsh government has been reluctant to set out a full list of when different sectors will reopen.

It has been critical of the London Government for aiming to end all rules on social contact by 21 June at the earliest – Mr Drakeford has said that was ‘very optimistic’.

Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies

Welsh Conservative Senedd leader, Andrew RT Davies said: “Welsh Conservatives believe gyms across Wales should be reopened for the good of people’s mental and physical well-being.

“Two months ago, Labour said it would be a priority when it came to easing restrictions, but it’s been another broken promise from ministers. This should be corrected.

“And given the progress we’ve made on case rates and vaccination, we also believe consideration should be afforded to the reopening of outdoor hospitality in Wales.

“Labour ministers have lifted travel restrictions, but it’s created other issues such as a lack of public toilets, littering and anti-social behaviour.

“Some of the scenes over recent days have been concerning and ministers should see licensed, regulated businesses as part of the solution, instead of the problem.

“Welsh Conservatives have provided a detailed roadmap for families, workers and businesses across Wales and Labour should listen to our calls and do the same.”

Adam Price: Labour must explain why they’ve taken so long to give businesses certainty

Plaid Cymru’s Leader, Adam Price MS, said: “The Labour Government must explain why it has taken them so long to provide businesses with greater certainty on when they can expect to reopen. Having been closed for so long, the least they deserve is more time to prepare.

“While this news offers hospitality a glimmer of hope, it will be a while yet before the sector can fully re-open. Labour has a duty to provide extra financial support to help those businesses to get back on their feet – increasing the pot of cash that’s available to businesses.

“Time and again, hard-working Welsh businesses that form the backbone of our economy have been let down and left behind by this Labour government – the very least they can do is to dig deep and support key sectors of the Welsh economy.

“Meanwhile, gyms should be able to safely re-open now – not least to help with people’s wellbeing and mental health which has suffered so much during the last few months.”

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