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Contests for SEN children dropped

Youth festival opts for workshops in future as schools are loath to let pupils compete. Karen Thornton reports

Music and dance performance competitions for children with special educational needs are to be dropped from next year's annual national youth festival in Wales.

Urdd Gobaith Cymru, the Welsh league of youth, says schools are reluctant to enter special needs pupils for the full range of competitions enjoyed by other youngsters.

But the organisers of next year's Urdd Eisteddfod in Cardiff insist special needs children remain an essential part of the Urdd, and will still be able to perform in public at the annual Eisteddfod. They are hoping to organise workshops with the Welsh National Opera (WNO) at next year's event at Cardiff's new millennium centre, culminating in a performance by the children involved.

Only four special schools took part in creative music events and only one entered for folk dancing, at last week's Urdd festivities at Anglesey's agricultural showground, Mona. Creative dance for SEN children received no entries at all.

None of these competitions will be held at next year's Eisteddfod, but popular competitions in art, crafts, design and technology for special needs pupils will continue.

Sian Eirian, Urdd director, said: "We have been looking at the whole syllabus and talking to special needs schools. The Eisteddfod is a brilliant experience for their pupils, but we weren't convinced that the competition was right for them.

"This is why we are looking, with WNO, at what would provide a better experience, rather than competing against each other - and the workshops should prove a positive experience."

Meanwhile, a new report from the Welsh Assembly government highlights an impending teacher recruitment crisis in services for visually-impaired youngsters.

In five local education authorities, all the teachers of the visually impaired are due to retire within 10 years. Nationally, 63 per cent are aged 45 or over, according to Educational Services for Visually Impaired Children and Young People (see www.learning.wales.gov.uk).

Although a third of specialist teachers are Welsh-speaking, six LEAs have no Welsh-speaking teachers - even though they have visually-impaired children in Welsh-medium schools. Training Welsh-speaking replacements for those retiring should be a priority, says the document, which also sets out standards for services provided to 1,279 Welsh children with sight problems and for the training offered to staff.

Consultations on the guidance close on September 30.

* A teenager warned of the devastating effect on rural communities of losing sixth forms from local schools, in a protest against ELWa, the post-16 funding agency, at last week's Urdd Eisteddfod.

Lois Adams, 17, from Penrhyndeudraeth, near Porthmadog, described how she and former classmates from her local 11-16 school ended up scattered among different schools and colleges for their post-16 education. Two went to study in England.

Lois, now studying for A-levels at Ysgol Dyffryn Nantlle, in Pen-y-groes, Gwynedd, said: "I saw the difference between the two schools. The sixth form gives a lot to the school and the community.

"I feel like I'm letting my own community down because I'm not there. We all travel for so long to school that we never accomplish so much for our own local community. The little village eisteddfod is fragile because there are not a lot of young people supporting it."

Dewi Jones, Lois's headteacher, said the 500-pupil school's 60-strong sixth form was not currently under threat, but added: "The smaller the sixth form, the bigger the threat.

"We are very different, as a rural school, from one in a city or town where you would find another secondary down the road.

"We do work in partnership with other schools and colleges, but having a partnership in a rural area is vastly different to one in the urban valleys.

"I don't think ELWa has realised the depth of feeling of pupils, their parents and school governors, about the drive to take young people away from their local school communities."

Huw Lewis, chair of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, the Welsh Language Society, which organised the demonstration, said colleges were "terrible" at providing Welsh-medium courses.

A spokesman for ELWa said: "ELWa is not undertaking a review of school sixth forms but is looking at the planning and funding arrangements for all post-16 learning, including further education colleges and work-based learning providers.

"ELWa is driving forward a programme of work to provide the best quality and delivery of learning opportunities to benefit all parts of Wales."

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