Benefits of rural change

20th June 2008 at 01:00
Small communities shouldn't be afraid of trading up to slightly bigger local schools
Small communities shouldn't be afraid of trading up to slightly bigger local schools

Rural school closure is back in the headlines. Partly this is because in the UK as a whole it is becoming a key issue of our times, with estimates that in England up to 500 of their 18,000-odd primary schools may be closed. Opposition to this has been vocal - in particular from Shropshire, on our Welsh borders.

In Wales, the political problems for Plaid Cymru, in what has been its heartland, are matched by the growth of pressure groups, such as Powys Community Schools Action, which oppose closure.

The pot is therefore boiling nicely and emitting heat. What we need is light. In these circumstances, the Assembly's Rural Development Sub-Committee's decision to conduct an inquiry into the whole issue of small schools, and their relationship to rural life is a sensible one.

But, of course, the old Welsh Office Education Department up until 1999 and the Assembly government since then have had multiple opportunities to fund research on this issue, and even to provoke thinking about the consequences of closure, and of course they did neither.

The familiar mantra - that it was a matter for the 22 local authorities of Wales - was employed, when clearly it should have been an issue for any national government worthy of the name. National guidelines were badly needed.

In those circumstances, a lot of attention was given to our research, Small School Closure in Wales, undertaken for the Institute of Welsh Affairs and published last November. Our study was a small-scale one and involved interviewing only 48 people. However, the clear majority of those we questioned - parents, children, teachers, headteachers and governors - were in favour of closure.

They saw their communities as stronger, their schools as more effective, the situation of the Welsh language as more assured, and the levels of children's achievement higher after closure than before. Even the data on children's academic performance showed the new, larger (but still small) reorganised schools as improving faster than the other schools in the county.

It needs to be said that the new or reorganised schools are still small, rural and Welsh, and still embrace the communities in which they are located to an extent that the closing schools were unable to do.

When all the evidence says that very small schools are less effective, only those with closed minds will continue to ignore it. But that is exactly what the opponents of rural school closure in Gwynedd and Powys are doing. However, if they were to look at the happy, vibrant and successful schools in their own counties that have been reorganised from smaller school units, then they would see much to admire and nothing to fear.

We now need to move the debate on in the following ways:

First, at the moment, the interests of those teachers and pupils who do not attend very small schools have been forgotten. Large sums of money are probably being drained away from the larger primary schools - where educating a pupil costs pound;3,500-4,000 per pupil per year - to the very small schools, where the cost is likely to be several thousand pounds a year more. No pressure group fights for the rights of these larger schools.

All of Wales's 22 authorities should give us the facts about what their primary schools of different sizes cost per pupil. Then we can begin to assess whether any of the supposed advantages of the very small school are worth the additional premium we are paying for them.

Second, no one believes there won't be closures over the next few years, so the procedures that are followed require national guidance. We need pre-closure policies and extensive consultation. Teachers' jobs need to be safeguarded, and any savings from closure must be ring-fenced within the education budget.

The guidance also needs to cover the process of closure. Development time should be given to heads and teachers so they can plan properly. Time needs to be taken to value and remember the closed schools. Projects, paintings and books should be brought to the new school. Children need to be integrated sensitively into their new environment.

There should also be clear guidance about life after closure. Closed schools and their playgrounds should be kept for community purposes. Senior citizens from the little villages should be included in the life of the new school, so they may need help to attend concerts and eisteddfodau.

Finally, we need to keep a sense of proportion - something that has been sadly lacking so far. If you are a pupil in a 20 or 30-sized school and it closes, and you go to a 70 or 80-sized school, you will still be going to a school that is very small by British and international standards.

You, and your parents or carers, will still be in a community that is very small by all standards, even though it may be bigger after closure than before. You will still have an enviable life and a high - probably higher - quality education.

One can only say to the critics of rural school closure - relax. Closure or not, you and your children are lucky people. Shouldn't you be more open-minded and welcome change?

David Reynolds is professor of education at the University of Plymouth and emeritus professor of education at the University of Exeter. He lives in South Wales.

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