Thursday, 17 April 2014

The dragon has three tongues?

Foreign languages are vital in order to understand other cultures,
and Welsh is vital to understand our own.
(Pic : CILT Cymru)
How should languages be taught in Welsh schools? What's the future of Welsh-medium education? What can we do to halt the decline in numbers taking modern foreign languages?

When they're not completing the London Marathon - setting what's likely to be a record time for an Assembly Member - Plaid AMs are
releasing a steady stream of policy papers. This time, their Shadow Education Minister Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) has put forward possible practical answers to the questions above (available here - pdf) .

The paper discusses the benefits of bilingualism in some length. I've done that before (Home truths? See me, please), so I'm not going to repeat myself. The important difference between what I wrote then and this paper is the discussion on economic benefits.

Language skills are still in demand globally, and the paper cites a 2012 CBI survey where three quarters of businesses say foreign language skills are a benefit – even if English acts a global lingua franca.

Welsh-medium Education

Around 70% of lessons in Welsh-medium schools should be
conducted in the language to ensure fluency and confidence.
(Pic : Aberystwyth University Education Resource Publisher)
Currently, there are 461 Welsh-medium (WM) primaries (32.6% of all primaries) and 56 WM secondary schools (24.7% of all secondaries).

It's generally accepted that up to 70% of lessons in WM schools should be in Welsh in order to "enable them (pupils) to....use it with confidence and fluency". Some WM schools vary in how much Welsh they teach, including so-called "dual stream" schools which teach Welsh and English-medium streams separately under the same roof.

The Welsh Government sets a current target of 25% of all school pupils in Year 2 (6-7 year olds) being assessed in Welsh first language by 2015. The figure currently stands at 21% - so they're not far off. There are, however, significant drop-off rates in later years, with 30% of pupils in WM primaries not going on to take any WM GCSEs.

The School Standards and Organisation Act 2013 places a duty on local authorities to draft Welsh-medium education plans (I've covered Bridgend's draft plan earlier this year). Despite this, there are doubts as to whether the Welsh Government will meet its targets and increase the number of Welsh-speakers.

The paper looked at examples in other nations and stateless nations which have minority languages, with the Basque Country picked out for special consideration. As I've mentioned before, they have a system where bilingual teaching is delivered in several different school types :
  • A : Those that teach Spanish exclusively with Basque as a side subject.
  • B : Half in Spanish, half in Basque.
  • D : Almost all teaching is exclusively in Basque.
  • X : All teaching is in Spanish.

Over a period of 30 years, the majority of schools have switched from A to D (though A remains the largest type of school). Type X schools have almost become extinct. The type of schools that are available locally depends upon the strength of the Basque language in the community - analogous to Welsh-speaking areas and Anglicised areas of Wales.

Despite this, they have the same issues as us. Research from Bangor University showed that while full immersion practically guarantees competence in a language, it doesn't guarantee its use outside the classroom - something raised as a result of Y Gynhadledd Fawr and Plaid's own consultation on the language.

In relation to WM education, Plaid propose measures which include :
  • Offering immersion courses in Welsh for English-stream students so they can continue to secondary school if they wish.
  • In the long-term, turning existing dual-stream schools into WM schools.
  • In Welsh-speaking areas, ensuring at least 80% of the curriculum is taught in Welsh in WM secondaries.
  • An "energetic campaign" to recruit more Welsh-speakers into teaching, and training programme to increase the number of Welsh-speaking teaching assistants.

Welsh second language

Plaid Cymru propose to scrap the much-criticised GCSE short
course in Welsh second language.
(Pic : Wales Online)
Welsh second language is a compulsory subject in all English-medium (EM) schools up to an including Key Stage 4 (GCSE). Pupils have the option of taking either a full Welsh second language GCSE or a short course. It's said 27% of pupils take the full course (A*-C pass rate : 76%) while 35% of pupils took the short course (A*-C pass rate 48%).

Estyn are quoted as saying that Welsh second language GCSEs, "do not produce bilingual pupils or young people who are significantly confident to use Welsh in their everyday lives".

A Welsh Government review in 2013 found several problems, including lack of contact time (as little as one lesson a fortnight for the short course), lack of teachers with the right skills (primary schools in particular) and lack of confidence amongst pupils to use the language. The review also said Welsh, as a second language, should be put in its social and historical context.

Plaid propose to, amongst other things :
  • Abolish the GCSE short course in Welsh second language (note: Plaid don't explicitly state they want to make Welsh second language a core subject at GCSE, but it was a recommendation of the Welsh Government review).
  • Increase the contact hours for teaching Welsh in EM schools.
  • Carry out an audit of language skills amongst teachers in EM schools.
  • Carry out international research into second language teaching to find out what works best.
  • Establish bilingual secondary schools outside of Y Fro, in which 50% of the curriculum is taught through Welsh.

Modern foreign languages (MFLs)

Modern Foreign Languages are only compulsory in Wales for three
years - said to be the shortest statutory period in Europe.
(Pic : Wales Online)
MFLs (Spanish, French, German etc.) are compulsory during Key Stage 3 (Years 7-9), but the numbers of Welsh pupils taking an MFL GCSE has declined over the last 20 years from 55% to 22%. Only 668 MFL A-Levels were taken in 2013.

CILT Cymru – the body for MFL teachers in Wales – says the reasons for the decline could include the fact that Wales "has one of the shortest statutory periods for teaching a foreign language in the EU" at just 3 years. They also raise the issue of lack of contact time to induce fluency, and that Year 9 pupils have many more GCSE subjects to choose from.

Elsewhere in Europe, as I've covered before, pupils generally start to learn a foreign language in primary school, often alongside an indigenous/regional language in Basque Country, Ireland, Belgium, Friesland etc. Also, a majority of English primaries now teach a foreign language, as do a large number of primaries in Northern Ireland.

Plaid Cymru propose following this example and introducing an MFL at Key Stage 2 (Years 3-6) – presumably it'll be French or Spanish - which is something that's also been supported by the Welsh Conservatives. They also support retaining a foreign language module as part of the Welsh Baccalaureate - a requirement that was recently ditched by the Welsh Government.

Exercising the strongest muscle

Introducing a third language at primary school shouldn't be too difficult,
but at secondary level, is the timetable in danger of becoming overcrowded?
(Pic : CILT Cymru)
Plaid are typecast as being a party "only for Welsh-speakers". It's long dogged them (although it's not a bad thing) in a manner which doesn't affect the SNP.

By avoiding being typecast in a similar manner, it's perhaps contributed to the SNP being seen as a firm alternative to Scottish Labour. They're short on paranoid monomaniacal Anglophones in Scotland, while Scottish Gaelic isn't anywhere near as prominent as Welsh is in Wales. Also causing difficulties is the fact Welsh isn't as mainstream as Catalan or Basque are in their respective nations.

The "trilingualism" proposal is one surefire way for Plaid to shake off that tag, whilst simultaneously supporting the Welsh language. Though the paper didn't offer many policy options when it comes to teaching MFLs, in fairness, aside from teaching it earlier, online courses and/or making it a compulsory GCSE (which I've supported before), I can't think of much else either.

It looks like Plaid want to adopt something similar to the Basque model. That's potentially a very difficult policy to implement, but a bold and ambitious aspiration none the less in the long-term.

There are almost certainly going to be difficulties. The most immediate ones are significant (60%+) cutbacks to bodies like CILT (more from Wales Eye) and a lack of teachers with the right skills. Realistically, a majority of teachers are going to have to be bilingual (whether English-Welsh or English-MFL or all) and/or able to teach across more than one subject in secondary schools to make up the numbers.

Another big concern would be resistance from the teaching profession. If I were looking at becoming a teacher in Wales at present – with the public criticism, numerous top-down targets, frameworks and strategies (I'm going to attempt to cover the recent OECD report for next week) – I'd probably think twice.

The good thing though is that most of the issues relating to literacy and numeracy appear to be at secondary school level, which teach MFLs and Welsh anyway, so don't need to make any major changes.

Even introducing a third language into primary schools might not be as difficult as it sounds. In fact, CILT have already piloted MFL teaching at Key Stage 2, which you can read more about here. The big issue will be language skills amongst primary school teachers and whether they're good enough to hold the attention of a class.

It seems every subject area is demanding to become a "core subject" nowadays - often with good reason - but they're competing for limited timetable space. If Plaid really want to teach more languages, and if we want things like PE in the core curriculum, then we're going to have to think seriously about extending the secondary school day, a shift to a six term system, and slowing everything down a little bit. Teaching unions will absolutely love that.

I've written enough about languages, so it's time for some maths. Look to the right hand column, in particular the number of posts.

54+167+148+130 = ?

When you have an answer, you'll realise I'm pretty much obliged to do something special for the weekend.


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Booze, Bans & Bogs

The Welsh Government have launched a consultation of their - slightly
controversial - Public Health Bill, which has led to accusations of "nanny stateism".
(Pic : chronicallive.co.uk)

About a fortnight ago, Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), unveiled draft proposals for a flagship Public Health Bill, which has been put out for consultation until June 24th (more details here).

The Public Health Bill will be a key piece in the jigsaw surrounding another (slightly bizarre) law in the pipeline – the Future Generations Bill – which is supposed to address long-term, generational challenges like climate change, the economy, demography, the future of the Welsh language and long-term health problems.

The British Medical Association describe the proposed Bill as a potentially "seminal" piece of legislation.

I've done quite a bit over the last few months covering public health – most notably childhood obesity and drugs – so I'm not going to go into extensive details (heh).

The proposals include measures on obesity, registration of tattooists & cosmetic piercings and community pharmacies. Alongside these, there are three "headline policy proposals" that could make their way into the Bill : minimum pricing of alcohol, a ban on the use of electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) in enclosed public spaces and public toilet provision.

Booze : A minimum price for alcohol

A 50p minimum price per unit of alcohol is included in the draft proposals,
which could see the price of a standard bottle of whiskey set at £14.
(Pic : Daily Record)
This has been discussed in EnglandandWales and Scotland for some time, but finally has some concrete foundations under it.

As I covered last month, there are around 500 alcohol-related deaths each year (mostly men), contributing to liver disease, strokes, high blood pressure and depression. The total cost of alcohol-related disease in Wales is said to be somewhere between £70-85million per year, and there were more than 15,000 hospital admissions related to alcohol in 2011-12.

Although it's said the number of adults drinking to excess has decreased slightly, some 42% of adults report drinking above the daily recommended guidelines (3-4 units for men, 2-3 units for women) at least once a week.

Most of the powers over this are in the hands of the UK Government, and licensing alcohol is a non-devolved matter. The Welsh Government have requested licensing powers, but they've been consistently refused, though the devolution of those powers could be included as part of inter-governmental negotiations arising from Silk II.

The main measure the Welsh Government propose is to introduce a 50p per unit minimum price of alcohol. "Setting a floor" for alcohol prices means it can't be sold for anything less, restricting access to cheap, high-strength alcohol (White Lightning, Special Brew etc.). It's said a 70cl bottle of whiskey would sell for a minimum of £14 under this price arrangement.

The UK Government rejected a similar move to cover EnglandandWales because they weren't convinced it would reduce alcohol consumption, while minimum pricing at 50p per unit was introduced in Scotland in 2012 – though it's currently subject to a judicial appeal from alcohol producers.

The Welsh Government say "there is indisputable evidence that the price of alcohol affects consumption", with a particular affect amongst younger drinkers. They cite research from Sheffield University (pdf) which states a 50p per unit minimum price would reduce alcohol consumption by between 7-11%.

Bans : Use of e-cigs indoors

In a slightly controversial move, the Welsh Government are considering extending current
smoking bans to e-cigarettes. Is this the "nanny state"? Or is it prudent public health policy?
(Pic : The Independent)

I should probably declare an interest here as I know someone who runs an e-cig store.

This is perhaps the most controversial proposal, and certainly caused a stir, with accusations and counter-accusations about encroachment of the "nanny state" (related blog from Peter Black) and the dangers of "normalising smoking".


Without question, tobacco is the deadliest way to take drugs in Wales.
As covered last month (again), smoking-related diseases kill ~5,000 people in Wales each year, estimated to cost the Welsh NHS £302million, and a further economic impact of £90million in sickness and smoking breaks. The numbers starting smoking have shown consistent falls, however the number of Welsh adults who smoke remains static at around 23% of the population.

There's nothing Welsh Labour love more than a good ban, proving that not all left-wing parties are as progressive or liberal as they think they are - what I described last month as, "a social conservatism based around wanting to protect people from themselves". I'm certainly a "lefty", but I've come round to disliking this sort of paternalist collectivism as much as the rampant free market.

Recent tobacco restrictions include banning vending machines sales, banning smoking in enclosed spaces and bans on open tobacco displays at point of sale. They also support standardised packaging for tobacco products - which could be introduced across EnglandandWales at some point - as well as a ban on smoking in cars when children are present.

Proposals here include the creation of a register for tobacco retailers, and a ban on "proxy sales" of tobacco (adults buying fags for kids), making it a criminal offence. They are also asking for views on internet sales.

The headline proposal was, of course, a ban on the use of e-cigs in enclosed public spaces in the same way as the current ban on tobacco smoking. Around 14% of smokers use e-cigs. There are no current restrictions on sale, though the UK Government are going to introduce an 18 age limit in line with cigarettes.

The Welsh Government say health authorities are concerned that e-cigs are "normalising" smoking, acting as a gateway to full tobacco, risking "a new generation addicted to nicotine". They also believe e-cigs make it harder to enforce current smoking restrictions and/or make people think they can smoke when they really can't.

Current evidence points towards there being little to no harmful effects from e-cigarettes other than nicotine addiction – which is harmful in itself, but only one small factor in the harm caused by smoking.

Although they'll almost certainly have an affect on the lungs, e-cigs don't contain many of the harmful ingredients found in cigarettes (tar, formaldehyde, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide etc.) which causes chronic lung disease. The exhaled "smoke" is mostly steam, though it does contain traces of chemicals and nicotine - albeit to a much, much lesser extent than cigarette smoke. Until more thorough research is undertaken, it's hard to argue that e-cigs are harmful to anyone else other than the user.

E-cigs work the same way as a nicotine patch but used in a similar way to a normal fag, potentially - though not 100% conclusively (pdf, pdf, pdf) - making them powerful tools in getting people to stop smoking, and they're certainly more healthier than fags. The Bevan Foundation's Victoria Winckler (also discussed on Syniadau) argued that the primary goal in any public health policy on smoking should be to reduce the use of cigarettes, and e-cig restrictions would "only have a marginal effect".

I fear this is another case of policy-based evidence making. The consultation reads as though the Welsh Government and health authorities are fishing for evidence from the public in order to say e-cigs are bad. It'll probably take the form of the usual "argumentum ad filium".

There's nowhere near a strong-enough case to ban e-cigarettes in public places (yet).
Restrictions would perhaps be medically-sound as nicotine is one of the most addictive drugs, but it's scientific nonsense. Having said that, there is clear need for better regulation, and the British Medical Association have called for e-cigs to be regulated like medicines - which is what I called for in relation to all recreational drugs, so I'd agree with that.

If the Welsh Government are absolutely determined to do it, a ban should be provisional with a "sunset clause", and accompanied by high-level research into the relative risks and harm. If it's proven there's minimal risk to anyone else other than the user from e-cigs, any ban should be rescinded by the Assembly.

I don't mean to be scatological....well of course I do, and I doubt I'll be the first or last person to make this argument....but a paint-stripping, face-melting fart is probably more toxic than e-cig vapour.
Methane and hydrogen sulphide aren't things you should breathe in casually. Not wanting to put too fine a point on it, but I'm sure we've all been victims of "passive guffing" in an enclosed public space at some point.

I once experienced one, worthy of The Western Front, in a German class (ironically) during a rather hot summer's day. Portacabins aren't exactly renowned for their good air conditioning, so despite the best efforts to diffuse it, it hung like a mushroom cloud above everyone's heads, raining down sulphur. It was like the River Styx. As a result, all the boys were kept behind afterwards and lectured on etiquette. That just prolonged the misery, as everyone was desperately trying not to laugh and draw suspicion to themselves, enduring something that could only be described as drowning in ass.

I'd rather inhale puffs of strawberry laced with nicotine than be exposed to someone else's dietary issues.

Moving on....

Bogs : Access to public toilets

Public toilets are the forgotten son of public health, but are absolutely vital.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
You don't think about public toilets when you don't need them. You certainly think about them when you do!

Though, of course, men have an in-built anatomical privilege which turns any vertical surface into a urinal. Ahem. But that does public health or general hygiene no good at all.

It's not a particularly pleasant thing to think about, but provision of public toilets is – genuinely – no laughing matter; especially if you're elderly, have young children, have certain health conditions, or brought a catastrophe upon yourself by eating too many sugar-free sweets. It's one of the most overlooked and unappreciated areas of public health, and as a marginal expense, it's under attack due to local government austerity measures.

One of those much-maligned and overlooked short debates in the National Assembly could've played a role in the getting this measure on the table. Kirsty Williams AM (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) held a short debate on the topic last November.

She explained that in rural areas in particular, public toilets are being eyed up for closure due to austerity, or – in Carmarthenshire's case (more from Carmarthenshire Planning) – being offloaded to community councils which have little in the way of resources. This would not only impact public health but also tourism.

One way the Welsh Government and local authorities have tried to address this is by encouraging local businesses – in particular pubs and restaurants – to open their toilets to the non-paying public through grants of up to £500. It's something that hasn't always happened, as it might be considered rude to use the facilities without paying in some way.

The white paper proposes that local authorities develop a strategy for public toilets, and consider the issue "in all aspects of planning". It could lead to clearer signage as to where they are, and planning conditions used to ensure more toilets are provided to the public.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Short Circuit

The goodwill shown towards the proposed Circuit of Wales
is quietly turning into suspicions and doubts.
(Pic : Click on Wales)
After numerous delays and bubbling controversies, it's worth returning to the Circuit of Wales saga.

I briefly outlined what the project involves in Formula One, Motorsports and Wales. Jac o' the North also covered it in Vroom, Vroom – The Next Gravy Train? In short, the project proposes a motor sports track, a karting track, various related facilities (hotels etc.) and an industrial park at Rassau to the north of Ebbw Vale in Blaenau Gwent.

The total cost of the project is currently estimated to be in the region of £280million, and is being led by Heads of the Valley Development Company (HVDC). Concerns about some claims made by the developers prompted a BBC Wales Week In, Week Out investigation last month (though it's no longer available on iPlayer), and also an angry response from established motor circuits like Silverstone, Brands Hatch and Donington Park, who fear the project could receive illegal state aid.

As I was preparing this post, news broke yesterday that the EnglandandWales Planning Inspectorate are going to hold a four-day public inquiry in June to determine whether the project will go ahead.

The Jobs Issue

Job creation figures have been criticised by industry experts as wide of the mark - although,
of course, any job creation is going to be welcomed in the Heads of the Valleys.
(Pic : frequency.com)

Last summer, estimates regarding the number of jobs created from the project's backers and developers were in the region os 4,000 construction jobs and 6,000 operational jobs - a total of around 12,000. Following Week In, Week Out, HVDC said the figures are 2,300 construction jobs and between 4,000-6,000 operational jobs.

Yeah, the figures are suspect. But the proposed business park could make an excellent base for the automotive industry (Ebbw Vale is an automotive enterprise zone). It's historically been one of Wales' economic and manufacturing sector success stories and would provide highly-skilled, relatively well-paid engineering jobs.

Prof. Garyl Rees of the Wales Automotive Forum, told Week In, Week Out estimates that the project would create 6,000 operations jobs requires "incredible multipliers" and "doesn't do any good to anybody". He hints the real figure is closer to 1,000 jobs – which is still significant in the Heads of the Valleys, don't get me wrong - meaning the original estimates are only 600% out.

If estimates on jobs are that far out, I doubt it's the only area where there are "issues".

Promising jobs in an economically depressed area is always going to win hearts and minds – rightly or wrongly. Just be sure the numbers add up, because I suspect Prof. Rees is right based on historical precedents.

The Money Issue

There's no deal in place to secure a major event (MotoGP), while the apparent
request for state assistance has been angrily criticised by established circuits.
(Pic : aqueduct.co.uk)
Last August, when discussing the project's finances, I said this :
"There's....the question of how events will be attracted to this new circuit in the face of competition from established circuits - and how much that might cost. It would almost certainly require some sort of capital funding from the Welsh Government at some point."
Although the developers claimed they had the money to build the track itself, the begging bowl has promptly come out, hinting towards a £30million investment from the Welsh Government and possibly up to £20million from the UK Government – a total of £50million in public funds (~18% of the total cost). I don't think it's beyond the realms of possibility that the next round of EU funding will be eyed up too.

The project has already been awarded a £2million loan from the Welsh Government, prompting Antoinette Sandbach AM (Con, North Wales) to call for a Wales Audit Office investigation before any more public funds are put into it.

All this is wasted money if we end up with a track with no events. As of yet, the developers have no deal in place to host the British leg of the MotoGP championship from 2015 – which would move from Silverstone. It's also unclear what other events the Circuit of Wales aims to attract.

It's claimed the Circuit of Wales could generate 750,000 visits a year. MotoGP would probably attract ~250,000 people over a three-day race weekend - a third of the visitor estimates in just three/four days. What about the rest of the year? The only other motorsport event that comes close to those figures is Formula One, and there's no chance of that moving to Wales. Are the visitor figures another very optimistic over-estimate?

You can argue the business park is more economically important than the race track, as at least it would be used all-year round and provide more than temporary hospitality and race-day jobs. So surely the business park should be the priority development, with the race track a nice add-on, not the other way around.

There's feudal remnant at play too. As the Western Mail and Daily Wales recently reported, the Duke of Beaufort (a distant cousin of Bet Windsor – net worth circa £135million) stands to make several million pounds out of this development, as he's the landowner via a claim to the title of Earl of Glamorgan dating back to Chuckles II. The Earldom of Glamorgan is a courtesy tital only used to address the direct relatives of a peer, so AFAIK shouldn't have any value in itself.

Also, as Jac o' the North said, only one person on the HVDC board of directors has any experience in motor sport – and that's as a motorcycle racing manager.

What started as slightly tangy whiffs in the air that make you check your shoes, is turning into a full-blown farmer's field pong.

Here comes the muck spreader....

The Environment & Planning Issue

A Natural Resources Wales u-turn on their objections to
the project has been called into question.
(Pic : Chris Hatch via Gwent Wildlife Trust)
The development is on common land, which means any land lost has to be replaced like-for-like on adjacent upland moors. It's a process the EnglandandWales Planning Inspectorate says could take up to a year, leading to significant delays in planning and – subsequently – construction.

When the plans were first submitted, Natural Resources Wales (the joint environment body established in April 2013) registered an objection, which should've/could've led to the scheme being "called-in" by the Welsh Government and possible further delays.

Correspondence between Welsh Government officials, agents working on behalf of HVDC, and Natural Resources Wales (NRW), were released via a Freedom of Information request last September. The important documents are Nos. 18-18c, which is NRW's response to a request for further advice.

NRW say in 18a (pdf) that, "....from the outset, we have had serious concerns over the scale, location and nature of the scheme as submitted and the likely resultant environmental impacts."

They go on to say that they wanted to work with the developers and Blaenau Gwent Council to ensure the environmental impacts would be mitigated, adding that a lot of work went towards that goal – though all the relevant information should've been provided from the start. They then conclude that the project no longer needed to be called-in by the Welsh Government. A near complete u-turn.

Since then, it's been revealed by BBC's The Wales Report that internal NRW e-mails suggest they've been put under pressure not to object to major developments. Morgan Parry – a well-respected NRW board member who died in January – is quoted as saying :
"I don't know who wrote our submission or how high up the hierarchy it was escalated, but I know that staff are finding it difficult to do anything other than give the same answer as we would have done before....

"The only way our advice on issues such as Circuit of Wales is going to change is if we are directed by (Welsh) government to have regard for other factors over and above the environmental ones. And that, I believe, would be a very sad day."
That day came.

Coincidentally, the minister in charge of the environment, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent), is also the local AM. Quasi-judicial decisions and all that. He is, however, quoted as dismissing criticism of the Circuit of Wales u-turn as possibly the work of "one disgruntled employee".

Big Projects, Big Problems

With all the talk of improved cross Irish Sea connections, has Wales
imported something rather unpleasant from the Irish.
(Pic : tee2i.org)
Personally-speaking, I have no objection to these flagship "big projects". They should be judged on their individual merits and strength of their business/economic case – weighed against the environmental impacts (which should be offset). I don't see the point of protecting every single scrap of  moorland, which is about as unnatural as it comes as it should, ideally, be covered in forest (sheep farming aside).

So in principle, I support the Circuit of Wales. It's just the execution of the project and sheer number of unanswered questions that risks bringing the whole thing down. That's not something limited to this project either, it's almost becoming standard practice in Wales.

For "big projects", the whole process – from planning to construction – has to be transparent.  Figures shouldn't be plucked out of the sky, and key decisions shouldn't be made behind closed doors in a manner that could compromise the independence of major public bodies.
An example of good practice here would be the proposed tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay.

If developers think they'll need public money, they should be up-front about that from Day 1, not drop politicians in it just as the public momentum builds behind a project. It's an underhand tactic, and bounds politicians and other decision-makers to support them in order to avoid becoming public enemy number one. It puts them in a difficult position, so it's not fair on them or fair on us.

We've seen it with RIFW (which has yet to reach a conclusion). Lest we forget Valleywood? We've also seen it with some of the schemes proposed for restoration of open-cast mining sites (like the Teletubby Village at Margam), and Carmarthenshire's dealings with Llanelli Scarlets (also something related from Y Cneifiwr). On a smaller scale, we've seen it in the case of the suspected fraud in the Milford Haven regeneration scheme.

Wales can't afford to become a nation of - what the Irish would call – gombeens; which roughly translates as shady wheeler-dealers with political connections. Labour would be wise not to perpetuate their position as a gombeen-enabler, shoring up their strong claim to be a Welsh version of Fianna Fáil.



Thursday, 10 April 2014

Vibrant & Viable Bridgend?

Just as being "educated at a South Wales comprehensive school" hasn't prevented anyone becoming an ex-Cabinet Secretary or First Minister, it hasn't prevented me rising to the heady heights of blogger. My attentions turn to the town again, and something of a ongoing mystery.

Last year, the Welsh Government established a new regeneration fund called Vibrant and Viable Places. The idea is that local authorities bid for a slice of a central pot of money, and the Welsh Government would award it based on the strength of the business case.

Since many regeneration schemes have often fallen short of their stated aims, Vibrant and Viable Places has three key goals it expects each bid to fulfil : improving the economy, improving skills & community self-esteem and improving the environment, housing and health.

Bridgend Council (BCBC) originally bid for £16million under the scheme for Bridgend town centre, in order to continue the regeneration work and address perceived failings – covered in Bridgend town centre : Answering Carwyn's call.

Back in November 2013 (doc), BCBC presumed only 5 or 6 bids would be awarded, which would be significant as each bid would be worth up to £18million.

In the end, 11 grants were awarded and BCBC received just under £6million – 40% of what they wanted. £6million isn't that much money when you consider the current regeneration works have cost £9million. A major face lift to Bridgend town centre would probably need 10 times these sums plus significant private investment.

In the aftermath of the successful bid, however, there's been no idea as to what exactly BCBC intend to do with the money. I suspect that's because BCBC ended up with less money than they anticipated and  need to change their original plans as a result. There's plenty of rumours flying around, but nothing concrete.

Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) has stated a few times in the Glamorgan Gazette that the uncertainty and rumours are giving some town centre businesses the jitters – especially Bridgend market stall traders. She also had a Freedom of Information request turned down
due to that much coveted (and all too familiar) excuse for lack of transparency in Welsh local government : "commercial sensitivity".

The current regeneration works are close to completion - I'll return to that in a few weeks time. They've also proven unpopular with some businesspeople
due to the traffic disruption. Freya Sykes of Riley's Sweets has been a vocal critic of the disruption caused by the Nolton Street regeneration, holding a street party to celebrate the completion of works last weekend.

I don't want to contribute to any worries, just let people know what I'm hearing so far, probably just confirming what everyone else knows anyway.

With Bridgend Police Station soon due to split between the Civic Centre and a modern
custody suite on Bridgend Industrial Estate, the site will likely be sold for development.
(Pic : Glamorgan Gazette)
Rumour 1 : The Police Station – The police station is moving to a modern custody suite on Bridgend Industrial Estate, while police officers will soon be based out of the Civic Centre on Angel Street. So the current police station site on Cheapside will be vacant in the short-term. There has been talk of BCBC buying the police station, but that was dependant on the success of the bid. As BCBC only got half of the money they wanted, I would be surprised if they went through with that. It's unclear what would go there, but residential development has been mooted.

The future of the Rhiw multi-storey car park has supposedly
been causing anxiety amongst town centre traders.
(Pic : eurekabooking.com)

Rumour 2 : The Rhiw Car Park – This is the rumour causing concern to Bridgend Market traders, as it could cause further significant disruption. There are conflicting stories about what might happen here. One is that the top two levels might be converted into apartments. The other is that the whole thing could be demolished, and then rebuilt with a department store facing Wilkinsons – something that's been talked about at the site for the best part of two decades but has never come close to happening. It would also cost a lot more than £6million.

There is/was outline planning permission for an expansion of the
Brackla Street Centre, which would include several storeys of apartments.

Rumour 3 : Brackla Street Centre Redevelopment (Phase 2) – It was recently given an upgrade, which included refurbished stores and a general tidying up. There is/was planning permission for an apartment block and new entrance to face ASDA - including two much-needed stores with large floorspaces - but the permission might've expired now. TK Maxx, H&M and Matalan were rumoured to have been interested in the past, but I'm not sure if that's still the case. The money could be used to resurrect that project.

Will a big name high-street retailer be convinced
to open shop in Bridgend town centre?
(Pic : yelp.co.uk)
Rumour 4 : Bunging Marks & Spencer, Next and/or Debenhams – This could be linked to either one of the three above rumours. One of the big weaknesses in Bridgend town centre, which lots of people have been saying for years including myself, is a lack of a big name department store that reflects the relative wealth of the Bridgend retail catchment area. The three retailers listed have long had "aspirations" of opening a store in Bridgend town centre, but instead opted for larger big box outlets at one of the retail parks, or in the case of M&S, an outlet at The Pines.

What we know, is that a 600ft bronze statue is completely safe and sustainable.
Rumour 5 : A statue of Carwyn Jones - Cast in polished bronze, the statue will be at least 600ft tall, aiming to be the first you see as you approach Bridgend from any direction. In addition to having one of those flashing red lights to stop planes crashing into it, it'll be positioned so that no matter what angle you look at it from, on a hot day it'll reflect the sun's light into your eyes, burning a Welsh Labour logo into your retinas, forcing all to bow and avert their gaze when approaching it.

That last one could be made up, but it's about as reliable as the other rumours (for now). Of those rumours I'd guess a retail & housing development at the police station would be the most likely, especially if it becomes vacant. We'll have to wait and see.


Tuesday, 8 April 2014

"FinEdBill" : The price of weak financial education

It's the form of maths we use everyday, but isn't being taken as seriously in Welsh schools as it should be. As covered last November, a proposed Member's Bill in the National Assembly aims to rectify this.

Bethan Jenkins AM's (Plaid, South Wales West) Financial Education & Inclusion Bill was recently sent out for public consultation. The full consultation document is available here (pdf), and the consultation ends on April 28th.

The Case for a Law

The results of a Freedom of Information investigation show that many pupils are
perhaps more likely to learn about money from Monopoly  than school lessons.
(Pic : ironworksforum.com)
Financial education is integrated into the school curriculum through Personal and Social Education (PSE/PHSE), as well as subjects like maths and work-related activities. Unfortunately, PSE is treated as a doss subject, and despite a 2010 Assembly Committee inquiry calling for changes, teaching financial education, "is not a legal requirement for schools to follow and is therefore (taught) at their discretion".

No strict guidance is set down as to how much and how often it should be taught, though general guidance on financial education is available. Meanwhile, a specialist Financial Education Unit set up by the Welsh Government to provide resources to teach it was closed last year.

Bethan and her staff undertook a freedom of information sweep of Welsh secondary schools in order to find out the number of hours spent teaching financial education. The results varied wildly, revealing a possible "postcode lottery".


The average across all responses was said to be 24 hours in maths and 15 hours in PSE (across Years 7-11) - working out at around 8 lessons per year.

At the best-placed school, a pupil would receive 270 hours of financial education across Years 7-11 : 240 hours in maths lessons and 30 hours in PSE. The worst-placed school didn't teach any financial education in maths lessons and only provided 6 hours in PSE.
What's more significant is that it's said preliminary evidence suggests more deprived local education authorities have the weakest provision.

It's fair to point out problems in interpreting these results.

Financial education is, ultimately, basic mathematical concepts put in an everyday context – like PISA exams. It's unclear if the FOI request defined "financial education"  as strictly meaning money management skills (I presume it did), or whether it includes broader skills allied to it (percentages, decimals etc.). Schools reporting low levels might have underestimated how much they actually teach, likewise the opposite.

Worries about "red tape"? Or red faces?

This is about as advanced as financial education gets in Welsh schools judging by the teaching
material. Don't expect lessons on mortgages, pensions or consumer credit - but saving to buy a new bike.
(Pic : via ebay.co.uk)
In a recent Click on Wales article, Bethan said she was disappointed with ministers' reaction to her proposed law, as ministers believe current measures (like curriculum changes and the future introduction of a numeracy GCSE) are good enough.

If you want examples of what's being done, the new Literacy & Numeracy Framework includes financial education material under the "Managing Money" module (here) - but it seems rather basic, bordering on patronising. There's also a WJEC GCSE short course in PSE, its past papers having included questions on payday loans (pdf).

Ministers also argue that legislation would create "more bureaucracy" for teachers. When you consider the weight of statutory guidance and frameworks handed down to teachers by the Welsh Government over the years, that's a silly argument - although that's not to dismiss it out of hand. The Welsh Government are right, but for the wrong reasons.

Back in November, I said laws like this could lead to the creation of a "curriculum by statute". That would be undesirable because it would make the school curriculum inflexible. Having said that, as long as AMs don't go overboard with "literacy laws", and it doesn't strictly prescribe what should or shouldn't be taught, there needn't be a problem.

Financial education is stuck in a purgatory of not being a core subject in itself, but still an important cross-curricular concept that has to be taught regardless of whether it's statutory or not. A financial education law would, therefore, be no different to a law that makes teaching something like personal safety or healthy living compulsory.

The FOI findings are also tentative proof the current measures aren't good enough, requiring legislation to ensure consistency across Wales above anything else. So I'll put it starker terms.

Nobody would tolerate children leaving school unable to read or write. We'd scream from the rooftops for new laws if that happened on a routine basis. Yet thousands are leaving school without the most basic maths they need to get by in life being put in its rightful context : how to manage their money or, indeed, someone else's - possibly yours one day.

So in a backhanded way the Welsh Government are right. We shouldn't need a law.

The fact a law has been deemed a necessity to ensure children are taught basic life skills should embarrass them.

The consultation outlines what Bethan wants to put in the law – subject to change. On financial education, proposals include :
  • Making financial education a compulsory part of the National Curriculum from Key Stage 2 (Year 3) onwards, with schools to determine for themselves how to deliver it.
  • Welsh Ministers and LEAs will be legally-obliged to ensure it's part of the curriculum and that it's delivered across all subjects where possible. They'll also have a duty to consult with experts when developing the new financial education curriculum.
  • Effective monitoring by the Welsh Government and an annual Assembly report on financial education.

More help for those who need it

Bethan Jenkins proposes that local authorities reinforce their existing obligations when
it comes to promoting financial inclusion, in order to help those already struggling.
(Pic : dghp.org.uk)
The second part of the proposed law covers advice and services for those in financial difficulties; whether due to austerity and welfare changes, because they're a particularly vulnerable group, or as a result of personal financial problems caused by the likes of payday lenders. The Welsh Government know all about that, don't they?

The consultation document cites figures which state :
  • 70% of 18-24 year olds were in debt (2008 YouGov survey) - presumably due, in part, to things like student loans.
  • 24% of the UK population have paid charges and penalties because they didn't understand the terms and conditions of financial products – to the tune of £250million (2011).
  • 84% of people seeking help from Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) during 2012-13 had financial issues.
  • 4% of Welsh adults (94,000) have taken out a payday loan, while CAB have seen a fivefold increase in the number of referrals from people having problems with payday lenders.

All this can lead to serious problems; like struggling to pay bills, falls in income and being chased up due to arrears. Then there's the unseen strain this puts on households.

Local authorities can play a key role, because they have powers over things like trading standards (to deal with scams), debt and benefit advice, as well as powers to create things like no cold-calling zones.

The problem's that there's no statutory obligation to provide some of these services, just general duties under government strategies like those to reduce child poverty. Also, different local authorities might place different priorities on financial inclusion in the same way as schools do with financial education.

Ultimately, they're both linked. Good financial education prevents people getting into difficulties, while improving access to good financial advice will help those who've already fallen through the net or are at risk of doing so.

So on financial inclusion, Bethan proposes measures which might include :
  • Placing a duty on local authorities to produce a financial inclusion strategy, and annual report, outlining how the authority :
    • regulates street-trading under their existing powers
    • takes steps to deal with doorstep cold-calling, including the creation of no cold-calling zones
    • engages with credit unions
    • takes financial inclusion of residents into account when they procure goods and services
  • Banning local authorities from charging for internet access in libraries. This would close a possible loophole in current laws which might allow them to, affecting those on state benefits like Universal Credit which have shifted to online management.
  • Placing a duty on local authorities to ensure children who've left care are given financial management advice.
  • Placing a duty on local authorities to inform residents where they can get financial advice.
  • Placing duties on universities and FE colleges to inform students about financial advice if they request it or need it.

Of course, it's all subject to change based on the consultation.

The proposals, as they are, seem pragmatic, achievable and could open the door to practical help for lots of people - albeit limited by what can be done under the Assembly's powers. I'd guess if she had the option, Bethan (and other AMs) would want to go further on payday lending websites, planning consents for things like betting and pawn shops, as well as cold-calling zones.

I'm sure many readers share my cynicism of all things "public consultation", and won't want to respond to the full document's 25 questions - its use of bullet points and bold text making me look like an amateur. Don't let me stop you.

Although - in what might be a welcome first for Welsh legislation - there's a shorter survey which only takes 5-10 minutes and is far less intimidating. It's available here.

It's definitely worth younger readers or parents/guardians/grandparents of primary-age children having a go as the proposed law would help you most of all. Just a reminder that responses need to be in by April 28th.

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