Thursday, 11 July 2013

Bitten by the 'Sound Bite'.

“In the context of journalism, a sound bite is characterized by a short phrase or sentence that captures the essence of what the speaker was trying to say, and is used to summarize information and entice the reader or viewer. . .

Due to its brevity, the sound bite often overshadows the broader context in which it was spoken, and can be misleading or inaccurate. The insertion of sound bites into news broadcasts or documentaries is open to manipulation, leading to conflict over journalistic ethics.”  Wikpedia.

Though not strictly about writing I am sharing this with you to demonstrate the power of the sound-bite to influence the way we think so that the real issues are overshadowed and overlooked.

For those of us involved in the fight to save Pentre Primary School from closure Wikpedia’s definition of ‘sound bite’ has a haunting resonance.

From the outset we wanted our campaign to focus on the fact that should the proposals be ratified our children would inevitably be placed at risk given the distance they would have to travel to their new school along a heavily congested route. The imminent development of a Tesco store and filling station adjacent to the route further heightened our concerns.

Another concern was that in times of economic hardship many parents from within one of the most deprived communities in Wales would be faced with an additional financial burden many simply cannot afford. Child poverty is something RCT have pledged to address through the Children and Young People’s Plan 2011 – 14. How could a Labour led council possibly endorse a proposal that would exacerbate the problem in one of their most needy communities?

Rhondda AM, Leighton Andrews, shared our concerns but it became immediately apparent that his political opponents were more intent on shifting the focus and hence the term ‘surplus places’ was repeated loudly and often at every given opportunity. ‘Surplus Places’ became the perceived rallying cry, a trigger phrase that could induce paroxysms of frenzy among political opponents and those who oppose the ‘Surplus Places Policy’. Battle lines were drawn and our school became part of the collateral damage that ensued.

 School closures are inevitably emotive and sensitive issues no matter what the reason or prevailing policy. It was not surprising that many people were angered by what they saw as Mr Andrews trying to have his cake and eat it. However if his support for our campaign contravened ministerial guidelines it is a matter of grave concern for us all. In his capacity as AM he listened to our concerns but his subsequent actions were undertaken to ensure the LEA was following the procedure laid down in The School Organisation Proposals 2009 – the Surplus Places policy. In effect he was ensuring his own policy guidelines were given due and proper regard. There was no conflict of interest apparent or otherwise.

That did not stop the hue and cry of ‘surplus places’ as politicians and the media smelt blood and set off in pursuit of Mr Andrews. Misinformation regarding the school was broadcast nationally in an effort to embarrass the Minister for Education regardless of the damage inflicted on the community of Pentre. In his article, ‘Did Leanne Spook Leighton?”(, John Osmond is at a loss to understand how “a trivial issue” was sufficient “to occasion the first such resignation in the history of Welsh democratic devolution.”

Since when has the safety and welfare of children been “a trivial issue?”
Parents the length and breadth of the country will be outraged by a comment that sadly appears to reflect the opinion of the majority of political commentators in Wales. Does the National assembly exist to represent and promote the welfare of the people of Wales or has it become some kind of Mount Olympus where the elected ‘gods’ of the Senedd conduct their Machiavellian business aloof from the day to day concerns of ordinary citizens and voters?

At least the AM and MP for Rhondda had the courage to show they shared the concerns of their constituents. Apparently the parents and supporters of Gaer schools in Newport were far less successful when they sought the support of their elected representatives.

Rosemary Butler and Paul Flynn both declined to even look at – let alone scrutinise – this proposal.  It is not in the best interests of the community and makes little educational sense. Yet neither of our senior elected representatives know this as they preferred not to hear about the proposal.” (

Unbelievable! Who are these people elected to represent? I understand that in some cases school closure is in the best interests of children but each case should be judged on its own merit in accordance with ministerial guidelines. The minimum we should expect is to be heard.

“.. . my personal view is that Councils in some cases have used the vague cover of “surplus” as a kind of “catch-all”, “get-out-of-jail-free” card to push through other proposals they want to see happen, especially when they do not have the money to accomplish them in other ways. (

This week the Rhondda Leader featured a letter from a Mr Andrew Nutt who obviously felt qualified to offer his considered opinion despite the fact he resides in Bargoed and has no knowledge of the local issues surrounding the proposed closure. The sound bite has obviously worked its magic in his case.

The BBC took a similar tack when they misreported the numbers on roll in our school to the nation, seriously compromising our campaign in the process. Why let accurate reporting stand in the way of a good sound bite?

Here are some alternative sound bites the Pentre Action Group would like the Senedd and our local cabinet to consider. How about,
for starters?

We can only hope that our locally elected representatives are strong enough to ignore the ‘surplus places’ sound bite and focus on the real issues confronting Pentre school and the wider community. When the cabinet meet to make a final decision on the future of the school later this month they will have had time to reflect on the objections raised by the community.

Parents deeply concerned for the safety and wellbeing of their children. Parents worried sick that they will not be able to afford the bus fare required to transport their children to school. Families facing increased financial pressure and over reliance on elderly relatives if they are to hold down their jobs and ensure children get to school safely.

The Director of Education for Rhondda Cynon Taff stated in his response to concerns raised by parents that children would miss out on the free breakfasts available at Pentre school by stating:
 “Treorchy Primary School has a well attended breakfast club, which will continue for the benefit of all pupils who may attend that school”.
The Director obviously does not inhabit the same world. Does he not realise children living in Pentre will have to get up very early to be able to access it and either walk or catch a bus in the dark during the winter months when arguably this provision is of maximum benefit. Is this acceptable?

These are the issues that are struggling to be heard above the sound bite ‘surplus places’. Wikpedia’s definition that, “Due to its brevity, the sound bite often overshadows the broader context in which it was spoken, and can be misleading or inaccurate.” is certainly true in the case of Pentre Primary School.

The question is, will our ‘trvial’ issues be heard above the ubiquitous SURPLUS PLACES sound bite?

Is it a case of, “If you tolerate this then your children could be next?”

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