Jacob Williams
Thursday 31st August, 2017

Memorandum of underhand things?

Memorandum of underhand things?

The ‘future’ plans for post-16 education provision in Pembrokeshire go back at least five years, deep into the Bryn Parry-Jones era.

A lack of political support, momentous procedural cock-ups and legal howlers too numerous to recall meant progress was slow ahead of the big step taken earlier this month.

Out of nowhere a document was put before councillors for approval at our July council meeting.

I’m among those who believe it paves the way for school-based sixth forms to be removed by the back door.

If that’s the desire, it really should be up-front.

This sexily-named ‘memorandum of understanding’ between Pembrokeshire County Council and Pembrokeshire College sets out each party’s role in delivering A-Levels of the future, and how the two will be administered.

Claims that the arrangement is too college-centric have also been made.

It soon became apparent that this agreement would fail to gain the council chamber’s…er…agreement!

To avoid further embarrassment it was shuffled off to an extraordinary meeting of the schools and learning overview and scrutiny committee.

Some wondered why it had never appeared there beforehand. So much for this oft-championed ‘pre-decision scrutiny!’

After a marathon three-hour kickabout at O&S – or the Cwmbetws committee, as it appeared to be – the document was referred back to council with minor cosmetic changes.

All the stops were pulled out by senior officers to make sure the extraordinary council meeting was held pronto – they wanted it sealed, pronto.

Indeed, the 14th August meeting was held just hours before the Welsh Government’s deadline for receipt of objections against PCC’s plans for Haverfordwest’s new English-based secondary school – which includes a sixth form.

Some councillors wondered aloud if a deal had been reached whereby the college would lose any appetite to object to the county town’s new school-based sixth form should the MoU get the thumbs up.

Of course, unless there was something within the MoU which appeased the college, the two should have been entirely unconnected.

In the end it came down to a single vote – passing 25-24 – with eleven councillors absent, not helped (or helped, depending on your outlook) by the hasty arrangement, unprecedentedly timed during the supposedly meeting-free August recess.

Cabinet member and leader of PCC’s Labour group, Cllr. Paul Miller, intervened with “rubbish!” as council chief exec, Ian Westley, early on claimed the MoU would safeguard the future of school sixth forms.

It could be that ‘rubbish’ is one of the more benevolent terms to be levelled at the saga.

A further cabinet clash emerged later in the meeting as council leader, Cllr. David Simpson, took offence to a figurative claim by Cllr. Miller that the council was being ‘bullied’ into approving the MoU.

This open spat wasn’t the new administration’s finest hour, but those cabinet members who went on to vote down the MoU, against the desire of their leader and the authority’s senior unelected officers, was something new for PCC’s top table – and I quite liked it!

Proponents of the deal say sometimes in life you have to be bold and make brave decisions. And those dissenting cabinet members will surely argue that’s exactly what they did.

“Sixth forms might not disappear this year, maybe not even next, but I’m in no doubt that they will go!”
— Cllr. Paul Miller
Cllr. Miller subsequently wrote an opinion piece for the Western Telegraph, restating his belief that the MoU will lead to the closure of the county’s school-based sixth forms, whether by design or consequence, the reader will decide.

But it’s a subsequent revelation by Cllr. Mike Stoddart over on that other website which looks like it could change the game.

Having dusted off his old university books, Old Grumpy reminds us: “if you can bring your own facts to an argument you can prove almost anything you like,” reinforcing his point with reference to totalitarian regimes!

With his post-meeting access to additional detail, Mike’s research suggests the figures upon which the case was made for the future post-16 provision – compiled by professional officers – were massaged.

For the full picture, head over to his revealing blogpost, here.

The last I heard, Cllr. Stoddart was considering all options, including an extraordinary meeting, to discuss the finessing of the figures – and the decision that was based upon them.

Reliable sources say some senior County Hall officers are finding it more difficult than others to adjust to the new administration of elected councillors.

We can only hope the culture of challenge blossoms, both among those new cabinet members who now find themselves ‘in charge,’ and backbenchers.

The signs look promising.

PCC’s so-far bungle-free cabinet, to borrow an infamous quote, gives every impression of having “…the truth on its agenda.”

That may account for this blog’s inactivity of late, although a look through my back-issues confirms blogosphere summers are always quiet.

Whilst I’ve never had a formal comment policy, I have always edited or even given the red light to comments which are off-topic, posts within themselves, offensive in my opinion or legally dubious in my opinion.

This all brings me back to the recent indictment of Pembroke mayor and county councillor, Dai Boswell, on historic child sexual offence charges.

As well as being very serious allegations, they are also before the courts – so I anticipate my comments policy disappointing a few more of you than has been the case so far.

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  • Malcolm Calver

    Good to see you back Jacob, for a moment I thought you had gone to ground.

    The sixth forms in secondary schools have always provided what was necessary for those pupils studying for an academic career and this decision will prove to be detrimental.

    Creeping interference by Pembrokeshire College in this level of education should have been resisted many years ago.

    Shame on the councillors absent from this important debate and I would have thought Cllr Simpson, as council leader, would have supported those councillors resisting this move by so called “senior officers”.

  • Chris Lawton

    Nice article as usual Jacob.

    I find myself in agreement that the future of sixth form provision in our schools is looking less and less likely for the long term, as I have said in other places, as a parent with 2 children at STP I personally do not see this conclusion as a bad thing, in fact I would go as far as to say I think it is a step in the right direction.

    It would be nice to see a system in place where the new A Level Centre could be paid on a sliding scale of results without the ability to massage and manipulate those results, not sure if that is possible or even legal but it makes sense to me.

  • Flashbang

    So it looks like Ian Westley wants to run PCC instead of following decisions made by the elected members. Is the council going to be as spineless as the last bunch of no hopers?

  • Timetraveller

    A bold decision by an elected body, a refreshing change.

    There is little doubt that schools usually do academic A levels best, perhaps the college better at the more vocational. I taught at both, and it has to be said that the college had more than a sharp eye on the bottom line.

    I have seen some colleges pack up to 30 students into a science A level class, no way a teacher can deliver to so many at that level to achieve their potential.

    A level in schools helps retain good teachers and generally academic sixth formers can help raise expectations in a school. It will cost, and someone will have to be squeezed elsewhere in a tight budget, but a sound investment.

  • Nic Wheeler

    The debate rolls on, but Paul Miller in his Telegraph piece misses the point like so many of his colleagues.

    The future is about choosing paths and systems that give our students, now and in the future, the best chance to follow their chosen careers, achieve to their best abilities and compete in a rapidly changing world.

    It is not about living in the past, being blind to changes in education, structures and institutions which, as Gerson Davies said nearly 2 decades ago are no longer all up to the task ahead of them.

    Even Heads accept that 6 of the 8 current Secondary Schools will have difficulty in maintaining viable and achieving sixth forms, and are better delivering higher standards of reading, writing and arithmetic where up to 50% (yes, half) of 16 year olds struggle to achieve standards of achievement which will enable them to properly access higher education.

    It’s not necessarily just about money, most of all it is raising standards and putting the student first, and using increasingly scarce public resources to best effect, in the right place, and offering flexible, integrated and individually maximised educational opportunities fitting them for the demands of life.

  • Malcolm Calver

    I do not believe by his comments that Nic Wheeler lives in the real world. Does he really believe that the proposal as outlined would raise standards and put the student first?

    In the interests of openness and transparency, perhaps he could tell us if he has any connection to Pembrokeshire College.

  • Larry T. Lamb

    It’s nice to see someone from the College remember Gerson Davies so fondly. Remind me, who was the head of education who piloted Pembrokeshire into special measures and left poor Graham Longster to carry the can?

  • Welshman 23

    Welcome back Jacob, I had to check the election results to make sure you were re-elected!

    I miss the BPJ and Jamie Adams roadshows, but on serious note 11 councillors missing from the vote is disgraceful.

    With modern technology surely there is a system that can allow absent councillors to vote, there should never be a situation like this again.

    If the senior officers are finding it difficult with the new elected administration, they should seek alternative employment.

    Finally, Ian Wesley needs to be kept under control. I wonder if he would have got the job if the new council had been in the position to replace BPJ as chief executive.

  • Keanjo

    Timetraveller makes the point that the lack of a sixth form will make it difficult to attract teachers.

    Teachers in maths and physics are already hard to find and it may prove especially difficult to attract good teachers in those subjects.

    This obviously would be detrimental to students up to fifth form. Has the county council considered this point? Perhaps they should consult the teaching profession.

  • Keanjo


    Malcolm, Nic Wheeler is man of many talents – see the above link.

  • Malcolm Calver

    Keanjo, thank you for informing us who you think this Nic Wheeler is, you would have thought he would have identified himself and inform us if he had any connection to Pembrokeshire College as per my request.

    No one minds Mr Wheeler and his ilke commenting on such issues in public and if fact it is most welcome, but with that comes identifying yourself especially if you have a vested interest, perhaps financial or a member of the body you are speaking about.

    Many of the decisions taken by Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority had a detrimental and costly effect on Pembrokeshire when he was, I believe, its Chief Executive.

    It looks like Mr Wheeler, I presume on behalf of the college or at least by his position within the college, spouting a view that would be detrimental to students wishing to pursue an academic future.

    I note he is Chair of the Pembrokeshire Local Action Group at Leader Programme 2014-20, perhaps someone can inform us what this obscure organisation, probably funded by the taxpayer, does or has done that has been any real benefit to Pembrokeshire?

    Mr Wheeler seems to have a keen interest in trees and perhaps like Charles Windsor he should concentrate on talking to them more.

  • Vivien Stoddart

    Nic Wheeler is indeed a man of many talents, including being a co-opted member of Pembrokeshire College’s Audit Committee.

    He was a full board member from March 1995 to 2014. Declaration of interest?

    Perhaps Mr Wheeler was so busy with his other commitments that it slipped his mind?

    Member/Advisor, Environment and Planning, May 2010-present

    Member and Trustee/Management Committee of the Dyfed Archaeological Trust.

    Member and Vice-Chairman of Trustees/Management Committee (and past Chair of the Partnership for 13 years) of Coed Cymru Cyf.

    Advisor to PLANED for Community Tourism and Heritage EU projects.

    Member, Friends of Oriel y Parc Committee.

    Member, Woodland Trust Welsh Public Affairs Advisory Group.

    Member, Symonds Club (National Parks UK).

    Member, Fortress Study Group, 1975-present.

    Member, Friends of the Pembrokeshire National Park.

    Member, Probus, Pembrokeshire Historical Society and Pembrokeshire Historic Buildings Trust.

    Member, Sunderland Trust, Caravan Club.

    Chair, All Wales Community Tourism Forum: 2010-2014.

  • Flashbang

    Does anyone know what amount of money Nic Wheeler is getting paid for all those positions?

    How has he managed to be the go to man when you need a board member or chairman in a hurry?

    Is he really the best man for those jobs?

  • Malcolm Calver

    Flashbang, looks like our Nicholas has gone to ground and you could be wrong, maybe he is not paid.

    Many so-called “public servants” who have made an extremely good living at taxpayers’ expense seem to retire early in life on an extremely good pension and somehow fall into these sort of positions for which they receive recompense.

    As Viv Stoddart points out, the problem arises as a failure to declare an interest, in some cases financial, when making a decision or in this case trying to influence a decision by commenting on a proposal.

  • John Hudson

    I keep getting stuck on the fact that the “council’s” 21st Century Schools blueprint, the Tribal Report, was originally commissioned by the former PCC CEO, a former College CEO and that it was bankrolled by Welsh Government.

    I recall that when this broke cover, the funding requirement was pump primed by some considerable reallocation of our revenue services reserve. Rubber stamped at a budget meeting by the then council, without any detailed knowledge of what it was for, other than the 21st Century Schools label.

    It appears now, half way down the track, that this blueprint is still being pursued regardless of what we or our councillors think.

    While scrutiny concentrated on projected student numbers, based on past numbers, it ignored any investigation of the historic costs which were, and are, irrelevant to the potential funding of future unknown student numbers.

    Still, the identified magic minimum number of 18 students required to run courses stands, and remains unscrutinised and unchallenged, as does the cost template on which these calculations were based. Scrutiny, of course, had to fit into the tight timetable, within the summer recess.

    I wonder how many of the 25 councillors, on their past record, could be regarded as having a predetermined view on the matter? We are where we are!

  • Dai Trump

    When I was in school almost every subject offered at O Level was available at A Level irrespective of the number of pupils in the class.

    Some subjects were popular, some were not, and faced with options you looked at the subjects that were acceptable for the courses you wanted to study in higher education and chose the ones you were best at.

    I can’t help thinking that the options facing children in Pembrokeshire now is not what is best for them and what they feel most comfortable with but what the accountants and senior officers in County Hall and Pembrokeshire College think respectively will be the cheapest and most profitable option. That is very very sad.

  • Keanjo

    Dammit Dai, they are organising education, what have children got to do with it?

  • Malcolm Calver

    May I suggest that some of the A level courses offered by Pembrokeshire College have little or no value and therefore should not be taxpayer funded.

    The Labour Party both now and under Anthony Blair with its education policy of “education, education, education” produced worthless courses leading to worthless degrees at mickey mouse universities with no work/jobs at the end.

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