*Edited 14th May 2013, to add this disclaimer:
I have seen that political parties have used information from this blog in their political bloggings. While I am very happy for others to use and disseminate this information, I would like to clarify that this is NOT a political blog. It is neither pro- or anti-Labour or any other political party. So, please feel free to use the information here in context, but any ‘political slant’ you put to it is yours and yours alone. The Campaign to Save the Gaer Schools is set up for this cause only, not to serve any political end. Thanks, Debbie.
Last Thursday evening, there was a meeting a Gaer Infant School. The Ward Councillors had promised us this meeting the week before, telling us (the Chair and I) that this meeting was for us to put all our comments, concerns, objections and questions to the Education Department and the Cabinet Member for Education.
As you can imagine, we were really happy about this as we have repeatedly asked questions face-to-face and in emails and letters, but never had a single clear answer on the main issues. We spent hours preparing – me in particular! – and I had 10 pages of questions and notes ready for the meeting. I read countless Welsh Assembly Government documents, Council documents and basically anything I could get my hands on to inform me.
Then, late in the afternoon on the Wednesday, the so-called ‘agenda’ for the meeting was emailed out by the Education Department. Now, firstly, I am still unclear as to why they wrote and sent out the agenda. As far as I was aware, they were invited to the meeting to meet with us. If anyone should have written an agenda, it should have been either us or the Ward Councillors. Equally, we should have been consulted on the content of any agenda, to include items which we want discussed, but we were not consulted or even contacted.
Secondly, while I cannot give details as to the content of the agenda as it is not open to the press and public, I can say that the only item beyond the introduction given by the Chair in which there was any involvement from anyone other than the Education Department, was a tour of the school led by Mrs Biddle. There were three items given as ‘presentations’ by the Education Department, and then the agenda ended.
There were no items for us to bring, there was not even an “matters arising” or “any other business” item in which we could bring our points.
This may sound trivial, but official meetings rarely stray beyond the bounds of the written agenda, otherwise meetings would be anarchy. Items on an agenda are like the hard shoulder and central reservation on a motorway – they guide the discussion and give no room for deviation, unless general items such as I mentioned above are included, giving participants the chance to bring other issues not covered by the agenda.
So, when I received the agenda, I immediately wrote to the Ward Councillors complaining that we had been completely cut out of the meeting, and asking them to have the agenda amended by removing the items that the Education Department wanted to bring, and replacing them with a much more general “To discuss all questions and objections raised by representatives of the Governing Bodies”. My request was denied, the Councillors explaining that they would ensure we had opportunity to ask our questions. But where that would happen on the agenda, was unclear. Cllr Whitcutt even responded saying that the agenda did make provision for us to ask our questions, and went on to quote the item that I had asked (discussion on questions raised by the governing bodies) to have included!! Clearly, he had no idea what I was talking about even though he was designated Chair of the meeting!
Following this flurry of emails, just a few hours before the meeting, Sarah Osolinski (our Chair of Governors) and I met to discuss the issues with the agenda. As we talked about it, we became extremely concerned as it became clear that we could not attend the meeting. The reasons for this are going to be a bit complicated (especially as I cannot tell you the exact details of the items on the agenda), so please bear with me!
We were to attend the meeting as representatives of the Gaer Infants Governing Body. In that capacity, we had authority from them to discuss our questions and concerns. However, the three items on the agenda after the tour of the school, were all items that should only be discussed with the Education Department and the whole governing bodies of both schools, as they were to do with the implementation of the proposal, rather than whether the proposal itself is the right one (which is what we were supposed to be discussing). In other words, they were discussions to be had after the Welsh Minister makes his decision, rather than while there is still some doubt as to whether the proposal will be passed (as we are all so opposed to it and have good grounds to oppose it).
In fact, two of the three items should really be discussed with a shadow governing body if the decision is taken to amalgamate the schools (if this happens, we will quickly have to set up a shadow governing body of governors from both schools). Now, Sarah and I could not represent a body which does not exist, and which we may not be a part of in future if it ever does exist! So how exactly did they think that we could discuss these items?!
Even worse, the very wording of the items totally presupposed that the decision will be taken to amalgamate the two schools, and we took offense at that. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss if this proposal should continue, not to tell us what they plan will happen when it does!
So we were left with a dilemma, just two hours before the meeting.
Do we attend, and hope that we will get the chance to put across our views/questions, but by the very act of attending, give legitimacy to the items the Education Department wanted to present and the way that they have presupposed the amalgamation will go ahead?
Do we boycott the meeting, but then risk looking childish and detract from the great strength of opposition in the Gaer Community?
Do we attend until the three items are raised, at which point read a statement stating our reasons for leaving (as listed above) and hand the statement over, plus all the questions we were going to ask, which must then be included in the minutes of the meeting, and then leave?
We felt that we were being played, in all honesty. We could see that they had backed us into a corner whereby whatever we did, we would lose. If we attended this meeting, could the Education Department subsequently claim that that had indeed ‘listened and engaged’ with us? If the decision does go in their favour, could they subsequently claim that there is no need for further discussion on the implementation of the decision, because the discussion had already happened with us? We could lose all opportunities to input into the initial stages of the implementation if it goes ahead. (Actual decision on the ‘design’ of the new build would be discussed with the new Head and the Shadow Governing Body, but other aspects could have been predecided, apparently with our ‘agreement’).
If we refused to attend the meeting, we could be criticised as unprofessional, childish, churlish even. They could claim that we would have been given the chance to ask all our questions, and yet the agenda made no allowance for that. How could we be sure? We desperately wanted to be there. I had so many strong questions to ask. But ultimately, we had to weigh up the long-term implications of going versus going but not staying. The way that we had been played, and the ways that they could easily have used our presence to help push the decision through, the fact that we had no authority to be in a discussion about the items they were due to bring (as they should be discussed after the decision is taken, if it is), and the way they were worded presupposing the Minister’s decision, all left us with the clear choice to not stay at the meeting.
Honestly, guys, I am beyond disappointed by the politicking and tricks that the Education Department are pulling. They should only be looking at the best solution for the education of our children, rather than blindly shoving through a proposal which everyone with eyes and brains can see will severely negatively impact on their education for a generation to come, and which has no legitimacy on the very grounds that they themselves have given.
I wanted to explain to you all what has happened, to encourage you all not to give up but to carry on opposing this proposal with everything you have. These ‘games’ they are playing, the very fact that they did attend the meeting (even if it was for the reasons I’ve given above) mean that they are not so confident as they were in the validity of their proposal.
I would like to thank the Ward Councillors for arranging the meeting. They were not behind the agenda (although I wish they had listened to me and added the item I wanted to the agenda before we began, then we could have left the meeting for the items we couldn’t discuss, and come back in for our item). I believe they genuinely wanted to facilitate a dialogue between us and the Education Department, and were very disappointed with us when we left. It was not meant as a professional or personal snub to any of them, but as I’ve explained, we were left with no option but to leave.
I’ll post the questions and points we have submitted and wanted answers to in the next blog post.
Thanks for reading!