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pound;750,000 exercise may not blunt axe

A consultation exercise costing nearly pound;750,000 may end up telling taxpayers in north Wales what they already know - that local schools will have to close.

Earlier this year, Denbighshire council withdrew controversial plans to close 14 primaries after protests from parents. It has since started a three-year consultation on how to tackle surplus school places. But new corporate director of lifelong learning Huw Griffiths says he cannot guarantee there will be no school closures. "We want to minimise as far as possible any such outcome, but I've already said to parents quite clearly that this may be the case," he said. He insists, however, that the consultation is necessary.

The authority has 16.8 per cent of surplus places in the primary school sector. In 2003-04, more than a quarter of places were empty in a third of primaries, up from 7.5 per cent of primaries in 2001-02. But four primary schools are overcrowded, with 504 juniors and 128 infants taught in classes of 30-plus - among the highest proportions in Wales.

The authority has acknowledged it has a problem with school places but has now been told by inspection agency Estyn that its handling of the issue has had an "adverse impact on schools" and damaged relations with local headteachers. Estyn's report on Denbighshire reveals that heads feel their views are not listened to and they have less confidence in aspects of the authority's work.

Headteachers told inspectors that, between the departure of previous director Sioned Bowen last October and the appointment of Mr Griffiths in June, there had been "a lack of effective leadership at corporate level".

As a result morale was low and trust has been lost. The authority is still refusing to explain why Ms Bowen left her post.

Dewi Owens, cabinet member for education in Denbighshire, said that bridges were now being built "very rapidly". He agreed that the way heads were told of the initial plans to close schools had affected relations, but insisted the consultation exercise "was not one bit a waste of money".

"The way it's already brought communities together to look at the way forward has been invaluable," he said. "This is a bigger issue than just education. It involves communities and ways of life and we have to bring local people in on this. I hope there won't have to be school closures but at the end of the day we have to do what's right within the budget."

Estyn judged Denbighshire's performance on managing school places to be fair, with clear aims and effective working relationships with other departments. However, the prospects for improving the council's service were considered uncertain, and inspectors recommended that relationships be restored with schools to regain their trust.

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