Breaking barriers

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Education has come a long way in the 10 years since Torfaen became a unitary authority, as Biddy Passmore discovers

As you drive through Torfaen on the fast road from Newport to Abergavenny, it looks like a green and prosperous place. There are few signs that this is one of the most densely populated of the 22 Welsh unitary authorities, or that this most easterly of the Welsh valleys has suffered the loss of mining and heavy industry, like the others. Turn off the main road, however, and both problems and scenery become more striking.

Some challenges are unique to Torfaen. More than half of the population lives in the only "new town" in Wales - 50-year-old Cwmbran, where buildings and population are ageing and social problems, especially in the south-west, are as serious as anywhere in the country.

Further up the valley, the old iron-making town of Pontypool and the former mining town of Blaenavon also have high levels of deprivation. But Blaenavon, now named a World Heritage Site, is reinventing itself as a tourist destination. It is home to Big Pit, the National Mining Museum of Wales, where ex-miners take visitors on a tour of the underground workings, as well as the Ironworks Museum, housed in 18th-century buildings.

The educational legacy of rapid change and depopulation was inherited by the county borough of Torfaen when it became a unitary authority in 1996.

Torfaen (which means "rock-breaker" and refers to the fast-flowing river that runs through the valley) also inherited from Gwent county council the worst spending per pupil in Wales, many crumbling buildings and some primary schools in serious straits.

But the education authority has already notched up significant achievements.

Mike de Val, director of education, is proud that education spending in primaries is now on the Welsh average - and pleased that education overall will have higher funding priority within the council from next year.

After many changes of head, the borough's 40 primary schools are now performing well. None has earned a bad inspection report in more than six years. This supplement looks at one - Garnteg - that has emerged from special measures to scale new heights, in every sense.

At secondary level, an inclusive approach to pupils' needs marks the authority out. The borough's youth access programme puts youth workers in schools to counsel and support those at risk of disaffection and offers pupils at key stage 4 the chance to combine work experience in the community with their core studies in school or college. We look at this in the context of West Monmouth comprehensive school, formerly a grammar school that is now coping well with a large and varied intake.

Attendance continues to improve at all levels and the borough has virtually eradicated the use of permanent exclusion. And, while the staying-on rate of 16 year-olds in full-time education is a shade below the Welsh average, the proportion continuing in education or training with employment is above. We look at Torfaen Training, where an effective head has tripled numbers and sent profits soaring in four years.

The council has a good record on co-operative work between social services, pupil support and educational psychology. In recent years, for instance, there has been a big drop in the proportion of children in care leaving school without qualifications.

Now the education department has been reorganised to make that co-operation even better. The advisory service, the inclusion team and the education psychology service have all been brought together into one directorate of school effectiveness.

Torfaen is busy putting up eco-friendly new buildings too. Work has started on its first integrated children's centre, in the grounds of Hollybush primary school in Cwmbran, using log cabin technology (from renewable forests, of course). And the Power Station, a pound;1.8 million "community empowerment and learning centre" is due to open in Cwmbran next February, heated by 10 geothermal bore holes.

But these projects, large as they are, pale into insignificance beside the wholesale reorganisation of schools that is about to grip the authority. As elsewhere in south Wales, falling numbers in primary schools have produced many hundreds of surplus places.

In the words of Mike de Val, it took a "wake-up call" from the inspectors to spur the council into action. While Estyn judged the authority's strategic management overall as "good", they considered the prospects for improvement "uncertain" until councillors realised the need for urgent action on matters such as surplus places.

Now Torfaen has published notices that will involve closing three and amalgamating 10 primary schools and it plans to build three new ones. In the secondary sector, plans would involve closing one secondary and significantly expanding two others, at a cost of pound;12 million.

But all of this consultation, disruption and rebuilding, difficult as it is, will help the authority towards its long-term goal: raising the aspirations of the people of Torfaen.

As Mr de Val points out, the spirit of community is strong but the spirit of enterprise is weak. Basic skills among the adult population are poor: more than 30 per cent have low literacy and even more have low numeracy, rising in some wards to nearly half. This often reflects poor experiences in school so parents may have low expectations for their children too.

Changing attitudes will be a long haul, but Torfaen council and its teachers are working hard to lift performance and expectations. Judging by inspection reports, both morale and quality of teaching are high and the new buildings and reorganisation are likely to reap rewards.

"We're creating new teaching and learning environments fit for the twenty-first century, " says an optimistic John Turner, elected member for education.

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