Blueprint for survival

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Small primaries told they must expand their services to prevent closure. Karen Thornton and Glyn Bellis report

Village schools need to become more "entrepreneurial" in the face of closure threats by providing other services besides education for the local community.

The Countryside Alliance's call came as Denbighshire became the latest council to announce a programme of primary school closures, mergers and improvements aimed at reducing surplus places and tackling poor facilities.

Parents and other critics fear the proposals, affecting 14 of Denbighshire's 52 primary schools, will tear the heart out of their communities and harm the Welsh language.

But the council is predicting that 1,600 school places - 30 per cent of the total - will be surplus next year. Five schools have fewer than 30 pupils, yet those in the coastal towns of Rhyl and Prestatyn are over-crowded.

The cost of educating a primary pupil ranges from pound;6,750 to pound;1,820, and 16 primaries were built in the 19th century and lack modern facilities.

The council meets next week to consider giving the go-ahead for a major consultation exercise which will last until mid-May.

Acting corporate director for lifelong learning, Dr Ann Gosse, told parents: "There's nothing set in stone. This is a real consultation process. We aim to be open."

But UCAC, the Welsh-medium teachers' union, said it had not seen any evidence of the education benefits of the proposed closures.

It believes additional funding from outside education budgets should be used to support small schools which are meeting community as well as educational needs.

Gruff Hughes, deputy general secretary, said schools were often the centre of village life: "We are against the closure of schools on economic grounds."

Anna Brychan, director of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, added: "If a good school facing closure is also hugely valuable to its community for other reasons, then perhaps we should ask whether some of its funding could come from budgets other than education."

And a spokesperson for the Countryside Alliance said schools should look at providing other services, such as adult education courses, in order to survive.

She said: "We view rural primaries as at the heart of the local community.

"They have got to be entrepreneurial but the local education authority and the Welsh Assembly government have a role to play in highlighting these opportunities for schools."

The Assembly government is encouraging schools to open longer and provide additional services, such as after-hours activities for pupils and courses for adults, childcare, and social services and even shops and business centres.

It is making pound;3 million available for such initiatives in 2005-6, of which pound;1m will be for small and rural schools. But unlike England, the Assembly governemnt says there is "no presumption in Wales against the closure of village schools". Its guidance says councils should take into account pupils' journeys to school, "and the extent to which the school serves the whole community as a learning resource".

It defines "significant surplus" as 25 per cent of a school's capacity or at least 30 unfilled places. But councils across Wales remain under pressure to reduce surplus places as pupil numbers fall.

This week, a report from inspection agency Estyn said Swansea had not made enough progress in addressing surpluses in its primary and secondary schools, where one in eight places is empty.

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