Small school fans criticised

Campaigners against rural closures were labelled as 'living in the past' this week

Isabella Kaminski

Opponents of small school closures have vowed to battle on, despite being described as "romantics from a past age" in a landmark report published last week.

A cross-party Assembly committee uncovered "deep public scepticism" over local authority handling of school reorganisation in Wales during a five-month investigation.

But they stopped short of recommending new laws to halt the closure of dozens of tiny rural primaries with 90 pupils or fewer. Instead, they suggested independent arbitration so that protesters could vent their concerns in their report.

The rural development sub-committee called on the Assembly government to produce more guidance for authorities under pressure to cut nearly 51,000 primary places across Wales due to falling birth rates.

The inquiry began after the Powys Community Schools Action group called on the government to oppose rural school closures in the county.

But the committee's final report is critical of the evidence given by campaigners, suggesting that they are adverse to change.

In addition to falling rolls, the arguments for closing small schools include the ability to provide better facilities for pupils at bigger schools and a lighter workload for teachers.

Campaigners believe the positives of small schools - happier pupils, good results and convenience - far outweigh the negatives.

Alun Davies, committee chair, said the debate had sparked strong emotions, but there was no convincing evidence that pupils in small schools performed better or worse than those in larger institutions.

The committee was also swayed by hearing about the heavy workload and pressure on teachers and heads in small schools, but agreed this was not a reason to close them.

The report drew on evidence from Estyn, the inspections body, and David Reynolds, professor of education at Plymouth University, on the importance of good school buildings, and it called on the government to force through improvement work.

But opponents of school closures told TES Cymru this week that they were concerned by the lack of balanced evidence considered by the committee, especially the research it had relied upon.

Mervyn Benford, information manager of the National Association for Small Schools, said schools in Wales were heading for "a quite undeserved assault through successive rounds of reorganisation and rationalisation, sustained heavily by this false dogma".

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Isabella Kaminski

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