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Rising numbers signal early success for newly-built Awel y Môr Primary

Rising numbers signal early success for newly-built Awel y Môr Primary

Proving more popular than ever with children in one of Wales’ most socially deprived areas since the opening of a £7.9m ultra-modern primary school, part-funded by the Welsh Government’s 21st Century Schools programme.

The advent of Awel y Môr – or ‘Sea Breeze’ in English - has brought a breath of fresh air to learning in the Sandfields area of Port Talbot after it replaced two aging predecessor schools that were beset by problems with empty desks and classrooms in poor condition.

Since classes commenced there in September 2013, pupils who would previously have attended either Glanymor or Tir Morfa primary schools– two miles apart on the same housing estate – have been enjoying the benefits of bright, open-plan surroundings, purpose-built for Foundation Phase and Key Stage 2 learning and fully-equipped with the latest technology.

That includes iPads for all children and Wi-Fi connections throughout the building making every part of the school a space where pupils are able to learn.  The new building also has many environmentally friendly features such as solar panels and rainwater harvesting, all of which are used by the school to help pupils learn about energy usage and the management of natural resources.

The new school also includes an advanced food technology area to help get children and families interested in cooking healthy food, and a dedicated, integral, area for Flying Start, the support programme for families with children aged under four.

Outside, the school boasts multiple-use all-weather playing surfaces, laid down on the footprint of the old Glanymor school, following its demolition in Autumn 2013.

The local community is able to use the learning and leisure facilities available at the school. Among other benefits, this is intended to enhance parents’ connection with the new school.

The net result this early on has been a significant overall increase in the expected number of children on the Awel y  Môr roll, as more local parents opt to enrol their children in the showcase school – one of six primary schools on the estate. Also, there has been a marked rise in attendance rates as pupils are more motivated by new and exciting opportunities for learning.

Aled Evans, Director of Education, Leisure and Lifelong Learning at Neath Port Talbot Council explained that the case for merging the two old schools was ‘overwhelming’, following a local authority review in 2010 both of surplus places and of the condition of building stock.

Glanymor had only 120 pupils enrolled in a school designed for 300, while Tir Morfa had only 140 pupils in facilities intended for 250. Moreover Glanymor was assessed as having a repair and maintenance backlog of £2.7m, while Tir Morfa needed repairs totally at least £800,000. Awel y mor primary

Education chiefs were faced with a challenge in deciding where to build the new school. As Mr Evans recalled, although both sets of staff and parents accepted that a merger was necessary each had a loyalty to their child’s school and wished that  their school could have been the base for the combined setting.

However the Glanymor site had the advantage of extensive grounds which would allow the new school to be built without disrupting the existing schools during this period.  It also provided a better value for money option.

Following community consultations and briefings, which lasted nearly a year and half, the local authority pressed ahead with the option to build a brand new school on the Glanymor site.

Said Mr Evans:

“We held extensive consultation meetings, and we also extended the invitation to other schools in the area. We talked to them all to test out our plan, but it was a case that could hardly be argued against. It was an excellent opportunity to have the very best for the children.”

Gail McAlister was appointed as head teacher in January 2013, giving her two terms to get pupils and staff ready for opening day. Together with the governors, she involved children from both schools in selecting a name for the new establishment and many of the special features inside.

Once the new name had been chosen, Mrs McAlister made sure that it gained a high profile so that pupils from both sites would begin to identify with it.

Pupils visited each other’s schools in order to make new friends, and building contractors Dawnus from Swansea even paid for children to go on a three-day residential visit to the Urdd facility at Llangrannog in order to get to know each other.

The architect of the new building visited early on to show children the designs and the eco features, and get their views on what colours should be used.

Parents were kept informed of progress throughout via the school newsletter or, whenever there were events at either school, Mrs McAlister was on hand to answer any questions.

She said:

“The children are incredibly proud of their new school, which is such a contrast to what they had before. It has raised engagement levels and has had a positive effect on attendance and on pupil numbers, which have just soared. The first thing parents say when they see the new school is, ‘wow’.”

She described how the classrooms are set out in parallel with each other, with an open working area between each pair of rooms, and there is also extensive outdoor space for the teaching of the Foundation Phase.

Another feature which has been transformed by the new school is the former Ty Afan (Primary) Pupil Referral Unit which was based at the Glanymor site. When Glanymor Primary school closed so did the Unit and the pupils transferred to a purpose built, specialist facility at Awel y Môr, known as the Pupil Inclusion Centre. This caters for up to 14 youngsters from other schools across the County Borough.

Mrs McAlister’s approach is to involve these pupils in the daily activities of Awel y Môr including assemblies, playtime, PE lessons as well as general teaching lessons, all designed to help reintegrate them into mainstream schooling.

Regarding staff, Mr Evans said:

“Most transferred to the new school. However, some who were coming to the end of their careers chose to retire while others moved on to other places.  We have a good track record of working with the trade unions and are very successful at finding placements for staff at other schools. Everyone who did not transfer to the new school ended up with an alternative job or other satisfactory arrangement.”

Meanwhile the space freed up at Tir Morfa has been used partly to accommodate rising demand for places at the adjoining Welsh-medium school and partly as an adult education centre for the area.

As well as better attendance levels and rising parental involvement, Mr Evans believes the new school is having a wider beneficial impact on a disadvantaged area where around 60% of pupils are entitled to free school meals.

Cllr Peter Rees, Cabinet Member for Education and Lifelong Learning said:

“This is a great example of where you can do something really positive for a disadvantaged community.  Building a school like this in their neighbourhood can lift the spirit of parents, raise aspirations in the children and young people, and generally make people feel that their community is valued. The overwhelming view is that this has been an excellent investment by the Council and the Welsh Government that is set to serve the pupils and the community well into the future”