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'Heart' of village life under threat

The future of the traditional rural Welsh two-room schoolhouse is under threat, writes Adi Bloom.

Small primary schools have long been a standard form of education in Wales: 14 per cent of schools have 50 pupils or fewer, compared with 4 per cent in England.

A third of schools in Wales have fewer than 100 pupils. But while she acknowledges the role such schools play at the heart of village communities, Jane Davidson, Welsh education minister, has announced that she will back closing them where it is deemed necessary to maintain standards.

"It is unsatisfactory to keep a school open which has no playing provision, no indoor toilets and inadequate classroom facilities," she said.

But John Hugh Davies, head of the 40-pupil Brechfa primary in Carmarthen, says that small schools such as his own can give pupils the individual attention they need to flourish. "Children are with us in a class for four years," he said. "We get to know their needs and personalities. If they have learning difficulties, we spot them earlier on. Closing down local schools takes the heart out of the village. Then all that is left is the public house, and that does not cater for young children."

Smaller schools also argue that their size often means that they have more, not fewer, facilities. Margaret Wilson, head of Trefilan primary in Ceredigion, has two teachers at her 16-pupil school. There is no school hall, so assemblies are held in a classroom and PE lessons in the village hall. Thanks to active fund-raising by the parent-teacher association, however, she has an interactive whiteboard in each classroom, a digital camera and two scanners.

"Everything we are given is shared between two classrooms, not 10," said Mrs Wilson.

Smaller schools often join together for sports, concerts and leisure activities. Hence many headteachers, while opposing mergers, favour the idea of a federation of small schools, with a central administrator.

"Administrative work is a problem," said Mr Hugh Davies. "Federation is the way ahead - it's the sensible way to go. It would use the expertise of many in a cluster of schools."

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