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Schools try survival of the friendliest

Three small primaries in rural Wales united to fight off closure plans, reports Phil Revell

Neighbouring schools are often rivals. The inevitable competition between fellow travellers is spiced by the fight for pupils.

For small schools, the added threat is that the tiniest drop in pupil numbers can tip them into financial trouble. Rivalry can quickly turn into war, as communities battle over which school will close.

Or not, as parents, teachers and governors at three Welsh schools have demonstrated. Their joint action has forced Powys county council to reconsider a plan that would have closed two schools in favour of a replacement "area" school in the largest village.

"We are together on this," said Margaret Hart, chair of governors at Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant school, a small rural primary. We need a replacement building, but we do not want it at the expense of other local schools."

Llanrhaeadr is famous for its waterfall, Pistyll-Rhaeadr, and for its gorgeous position in the Tanat valley. The school has 75 pupils and a cramped Victorian building, with no proper play facilities.

As part of a countywide review of primary places, Powys suggested building a new school for Llanrhaeadr. But this would have meant closing Llangedwyn school, further down the valley, and Bro Cynllaith school in Llansilin.

"The situation is unique," said Harry Hughes, county councillor for the area and a governor at Bro Cynllaith. "We do not have falling pupil numbers here. In the event of the school closing some children would have to travel 15 to 17 miles. That's unacceptable."

Jo Morris is a parent governor of Llangedwyn school. She said: "We opted to send our children here for the small school ethos. I have been really pleased with the school and I want them to stay in this environment."

Governors from the three schools got together to plan tactics and express solidarity.

"We all agree that there should be a new building at Llanrhaeadr," said Brian Smith, who chairs the governing body at Bro Cynllaith. But he saw no educational argument for the closures, pointing out that his school and Llangedwyn are border schools with an essentially English culture and Llanrhaeadr is a Welsh-medium school.

Powys claimed that the review was necessary to create a "sustainable blueprint" for the next 10 years. Tim Van-Rees, county council chairman, said the criteria did not hinge on pupil numbers: "There will be small schools, but these small schools must be properly supported."

The authority considered the condition of buildings and the quality of the curriculum, as well as surplus places.

But Llangedwyn and Bro Cynllaith are over-subscribed and, while parents and teachers would welcome further investment in buildings, all agreed that the two schools are in good condition.

"Our school could do with a coat of paint, but there has been a lot of work done over the past few years," said Brian Smith.

At Llangedwyn this battle has been fought before. Powys tried to close the school in 1997. Its head, John Parkinson, fought off that closure and he is determined to win this battle as well.

"There is such an obvious need for a school in this location," he said.

"And this is a well-equipped school. We have an adventure playground, a good ICT network."

He rejects the argument that small schools are unable to offer a broad curriculum, and Welsh inspection body Estyn appear to agree. It describes Llangedwyn as a "successful school".

Parents in the two villages said they were unlikely to send their children to Llanrhaeadr because it was so hard to get them there. Llanrhaeadr is at the head of the valley, but most parents work over the English border in Shrewsbury or Oswestry. The school run to Llanrhaeadr would involve a journey in the wrong direction.

The campaign involved joint meetings, local radio interviews and a lobby of the county council. Llangedwyn head John Parkinson produced a detailed analysis of the Powys consultation document. The result was announced last month: both Llangedwyn and Llansilin are to stay open.

"I applaud the courage of the Powys councillors who voted to retain this school," said Mr Parkinson.

And Llanrhaeadr is to get a new building for 120 pupils. As Powys has been promising a new school for years villagers aren't going to celebrate until they see it.

"Hopefully that will be no later than 2007," said Llanrhaeadr head Rhodri Jones. "I just hope that it doesn't get delayed, again."

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