Friday, 25 April 2014

Road Safety Data That Made My Blood Boil.

Below is a copy of the letter sent to Huw Lewis, Minister for Education in response to his decision to uphold the closure of Pentre Primary. It was sent almost two weeks ago.  Copies were also sent to Carl Sargeant, Minister responsible for Regeneration, Edwina Hart, Minister responsible for Transport, Leighton Andrews, local AM, and Chris Bryant M.P.
To date I have received two replies. One out of office reply from Leighton Andrews and a very positive response from Chris Bryant.

It's a long letter! Try and read it all the way through as there are some newly released road safety statistics guaranteed to make your blood boil. To skip straight to it simply scroll down the page. You can't miss it!

"Your decision to uphold RCTCBC’s proposal to close Pentre Primary School represents a blow to the democratic process.  This is a bad day for democracy in Wales.

You may think I am over-reacting? After all, what is the significance of the closure of one more school among the many that have already been forced to close their doors for good?  I would suggest it is huge. Your response to our objection, and lack of any meaningful engagement with the community of Pentre, has been such that the Welsh Government might just as well be sitting in Moscow.

Your failure to respond in full to our detailed legal objection to the consultation process is particularly disturbing. It is clear from the evidence we presented to you that RCTCBC has violated the principles of consultation as established in case law referred to as the Gunning Principles. These principles you acknowledge in the recent School Organisation Code as having been already established. In fact the consultation process contained in the new Code is based upon that very law. In effect the actions of RCTCBC can be proved to be unlawful. The Gunning principles outline a meaningful process of consultation not merely the completion of a ‘template’. In this respect QC Jerry Heap was particularly scathing regarding the behaviour of senior decision makers.

Your silence on this particular point is deafening. The only conclusion we can make is that you chose to ignore this objection because it is legally indefensible. Perhaps you conclude that we do not have the resources to mount a legal challenge in the courts. It would appear that justice and fair play comes at too high a price for the parents and community of Pentre. After all we are merely the ‘little people’, easily brushed aside.

At least we have been more fortunate than some schools in our position whose AM’s refused even to meet with them to discuss their concerns. Everyone should be in no doubt regarding the implication of your response.  A dangerous precedent is being set where the will of the Welsh Government is elevated above established case law. Westminster does not seem so far away any more.

Your actions in this respect are tantamount to bullying. The law says we have been unjustly treated but it if the Welsh Government chooses to ride roughshod over our rights as established in the courts there is little we can do because we lack the resources to challenge your decision. When our AM attempted to champion our cause he was subjected to a personal attack from opposition parties and forced to tender his resignation. As someone who lived within the locality Mr Andrews was acutely aware of the dangers facing children who will now have to walk a considerable distance along a congested main road to get to school. What moral authority does the Welsh Government have to condemn bullying in schools and the workplace when it behaves in such a manner?

Shouldn’t the key priority of any government be to protect the most vulnerable within society? For example, “reducing child poverty” as “a fundamental element of its social justice agenda and also part of its key priorities. . . in helping to reduce poverty, particularly in the areas of improving health, education and economic outcomes for children in low-income families . . ..”
Your words not mine Minister. This directive was also issued:
“In recognition of the key role played by other partners in the shared fight against child poverty the Measure made action to eradicate child poverty a statutory requirement across local authorities.”

If you have actually read any of the numerous objections written by members of the community you will be in no doubt that low-income families within Pentre will suffer increased financial hardship as a direct consequence of your decision. This will inevitably increase levels of child poverty within a community desperately in need of regeneration and investment. Many of the letters of objection written by parents and grandparents provide graphic detail of the financial and social difficulties they will encounter as a consequence of your decision

Isn’t the eradication of child poverty supposedly a fundamental strategy of the Welsh Government? I also refer you to the ‘Foreward’ of ‘The Children and Young People’s Plan Rhondda Cynon Taff 2011- 2014’ in which Chairman Ellis Williams states:
“Our new Plan gives us greater focus on attacking poverty amongst our communities, our families, our young people and our children. Child poverty infects our communities and we need to root this out and defeat it. We know we can only achieve this by working together and remaining child focused in all that we do.
We must remain ambitious for ourselves, the organisations we work in and the communities we live in. We owe that to our children and young people and to future generations in Rhondda Cynon Taf.”

What is the point of enshrining these laudable ideals in legislative and policy documents at local and national level?  Is it merely a cosmetic exercise to salve the communal political conscience because they do not appear to have any relevance to our situation? They are just words on paper. If a government at local or national level cannot protect its children is it really worthy of the name? For example, to blandly state that Treorchy also has a breakfast club that children from Pentre can access is ignoring the fact that many of those children face a long walk in frequent inclement weather to access that provision. In winter they will have to leave home while it is still dark. How will this improve the quality of their educational experience?

It is obvious that financial considerations have taken precedence over every other consideration. The current mantra, “because of the austerity measures of the Tory government,” is beginning to wear thin. When, because of decades of lack of investment, lack of vision and lack of meaningful engagement with the community, RCTCBC finds itself teetering on the edge of a financial precipice it has little justification in pointing a finger of blame at a Tory government in Westminster. Sadly for Pentre this familiar cycle is being repeated in the way the proposed closure of the school has been handled.

RCTCBC has palpably failed to engage with the community during the so called process of consultation. The Director of Education did not even deem it necessary to carry out a safe route to school survey before bringing the proposal to cabinet. It appears you are satisfied with their declaration that should the closure proceed they will then undertake a more detailed survey. That is akin to me as a head teacher undertaking a safety assessment after an educational trip has taken place rather then before it, clearly a nonsensical and irresponsible stance. Shouldn’t the safety of children in his and your care be paramount?  Has anyone from the Welsh Government undertaken an independent safe routes survey given the level of concern expressed by parents and our local AM Leighton Andrews? The proposed construction of a new Tesco store along the route not only gives cause for concern but further exemplifies the lack of vision and planning.

Here was a site that could have ideally housed a brand new school incorporating Treorchy and Pentre but that would have constituted foresight and strategic planning on behalf of RCTCBC. It is interesting to note that two schools, Aberllechau and Caegarw, were both saved from closure primarily because of the safe routes issue. Why is Pentre different? Am I becoming too cynical or does the fact that both those schools were served by Labour Ward Councillors whereas Pentre is served by two Plaid Cymru Councillors have any bearing on the issue? If not would some one please explain where the difference lies? It is said, “By their fruit you shall know them.” Well, from where I’m standing the political fruit looks pretty rotten at the moment.

I assume it was the issue of Caegarw Primary School you refer to when refuting our objection that the consultation process was not undertaken at a formative stage?  Apparently Labour Councillor for Mountain Ash West Andrew Morgan stated, “I’m happy with the recommendations (not to proceed with the closure of Caegarw). This is a quite different situation from some of the other school closures as it’s one of oversubscription, rather than surplus places.
“My biggest concern was the location and journey to the secondary school.
"It’s safe for savvy teens to negotiate the roads, but the A4059 is a very busy road for parents with one, two or maybe more little ones.”
It’s interesting to note that Mr Morgan refers to the difference situation with regard to oversubscription and surplus places but concedes the biggest issue for all concerned was the safe route to school.

I repeat, why then is Pentre Primary any different? What is more important over subscription/surplus places or the safety of children in your care? The route Pentre children will have to take is every bit as hazardous as those the children of Caegarw would have had to negotiate. It is not just the distance but the nature of the route that has yet to be adequately assessed by RCTCBC. Although, I note the Director of Education concedes there is no safe cycle route or ever likely to be one. Whatever other considerations there may be the safety of children has to be absolutely paramount whether they live in Caegarw or Pentre.

The Director of Education’s reference to an assessment undertaken “in accordance with the nationally recognised Road Safety GB framework, criteria and guidelines” is, in our opinion at best a totally inadequate response, and at worst a complete abdication of responsibility.  Your position on this particular point seems a little ambiguous given your expectation that you expect the local authority to honour their commitment “to look again at the route in the event that the proposal were to proceed.”  Does this indicate you are not entirely satisfied with the local authority’s initial assessment especially when considered against the ambitious targets set by the new Road Safety Framework for Wales:
The Welsh Government’s vision, expressed in the Framework, is “a continued reduction in the number of people killed and seriously injured on Welsh roads, with the ultimate aspiration of no fatalities”.
The Framework also includes a commitment to “understanding the links between road casualties and social deprivation, and seeking to address this”.

Unfortunately the closure of Pentre may help provide the Welsh Government with a more practical understanding of the links between road casualties and social deprivation. The Director of Education is technically correct when he asserts it is not his place, or the place of any officer of RCT to tell parents how to get children to school. However it is his decision, the decision of RCTCBC and ultimately the decision of Welsh Government itself that is directly responsible for placing them in the situation they now find themselves in. It is our intention to take legal advice with regard to the culpability of the local authority and Welsh Government should any child be injured travelling a route that was not adequately assessed according to advice contained in the new Road Safety Framework for Wales.

". . . research suggests that child pedestrians from the lowest socio-economic groups are over four times more likely to be killed or seriously injured on the roads. Up to 36% of collisions occurred in the most deprived areas of Wales in 2011." From the Road Safety Framework for Wales 2013

The issue of ‘surplus places’ was persistently trumpeted by RCTCBC as one of the primary reasons for proposing the closure. Yet the irony is Pentre is now admitting children from Treorchy Primary and other schools in the locality who are full to capacity. There will always be the need for some ‘surplus places’. We anticipated a more reasoned and measured response from you Minister. Here was an opportunity for RCTCBC to display some vision and offer hope for the future. Former pupil and internationally successful businessman Professor Roger Willey has that vision. He wrote to you regarding a school based model for community regeneration he has seen working effectively in Scotland and Belgium. He offered to meet with anyone interested in hearing his proposals. He did not even receive a reply. This is a man with an international reputation who has acted in an advisory capacity for several governments. Minister, many of our communities need all the help they can get.

It is also with deep dismay that we read your reasons for upholding the closure which appears to include an attempt by the Director of Education to denigrate and demean the sterling work undertaken by the staff of Pentre Primary over the last eighteen months.  A parallel with the tactics used to justify the cuts in nursery provision is hard to ignore.
Again the evidence base for the educational argument is somewhat imbalanced. Pentre has been rigorously inspected by Estyn in recent months and found to be improving significantly. The ‘recent’ evidence provided for Treorchy was based on an inspection that took place in 2009, hardly recent.

You appear to have taken the Director of Education’s Statement of Information at face value as, for example, with regard to the comparison of the physical condition of the two schools. Any independent observation would almost certainly conclude that Pentre Primary is currently far more ‘fit for purpose’ than Treorchy Primary. Can I also ask why the under 5’s are still included in Treorchy’s figures while for Pentre they are omitted?

 It is hard to argue with the conclusion reached by Jerry Heap QC in para 4.5

it is evident that the Council embarked upon the consultation process at far too late a stage; its proposal had in effect been finalised before it did so.  In short, those who might have wished to object to the proposed closure of Pentre Primary School were in effect presented with a fait accompli.

Jerry Heap QC was also scathing regarding the comments made by Eudine Hannigan, the Cabinet Member for Education who stated openly that “. . . the shopkeepers and community of Pentre are no concern of ours”. A remark made in full hearing of Council members and the public and which was reported in the local paper. Jerry Heap concludes . . .

“. . . the fact that Eudine Hannigan stated (see sub-paragraph 3.7(ii)(b) above) stated that she was not concerned in the “shopkeepers and community of Pentre” is indicative of a member of the Council’s cabinet addressing a decision which she considered had already in effect been made, because otherwise she would have realised that community considerations were an important aspect of the matter – and one which the council had failed to address.”

RCTCBC’s response to this allegation is a damning inditement of its disdainful attitude towards the community of Pentre and members of the Pentre Action Group in particular who were prepared to sign an affidavit to that effect. RCTCBC state that:
 “The local authority has no documentary evidence which verifies this at all.”
This is hardly a denial rather a confession that RCTCBC is very selective in its recording of Council minutes.

Pentre was once the civic and commercial centre of Rhondda. It boasts a proud and unique history. Once it embodied what we were. Now, increasingly derelict and disadvantaged, it is becoming a symbol of what we have become. “Where there is no vision the people perish”. Tragically while the community of Pentre has a vision for the future they have no power to implement that vision. It might be expected that a Westminster government would have scant regard for the historic significance of a small valleys community in South Wales but surely we are entitled to expect more from our own? Apparently not, the cycle of deprivation and decay continues unabated. What future is there for our children and our community?"