Bring back local schools for local pupils

5th January 2007 at 00:00
Helen Yewlett is a former ICT teacher

How far is it to Bethlehem? Too far for little feet to walk, especially since the local school was closed.

What has happened to small schools in Wales? In 2005, the Countryside Commission in England published education results according to where pupils lived. The tables showed that children living in rural areas topped the performance leagues, with those in sparsely populated areas coming in next, ahead of pupils in urban wards, where they are likely to be educated in larger schools. And Scotland has released data that compares the education in small schools with larger ones. It too concludes that smaller schools are superior.

But Estyn, the Welsh schools inspectorate, states that there is no significant difference in educational standards. So why are small schools in Wales still under threat? According to Estyn, it is not on educational grounds. Is it economic grounds then? Are we putting economics before the good of children and communities in Wales?

It is bad enough to dread the journey home from school at age 11. What will be stolen from me tonight - my tie, my hat, my books? Will I be hit?

What are we doing to small children's learning by putting them through this? Why are we moving them where their mums can't easily fetch them after school? Why are we wasting more fuel?

In my experience, a child learns well in a family-type environment. Older children consolidate their knowledge when they pass it down, and younger children stretch themselves to reach their elders' high standards. I've used the technique in the ICT department, and it creates a real learning buzz.

Small schools in New South Wales, Australia, don't close. There they appreciate their importance. Helen Sturman, a headteacher there, is quick to defend the plus points: older pupils supporting and helping the little ones, with the kinder kids aspiring to be like their elders. Keen to learn, they soak up everything by watching and listening, she says.

Then there was the village school where my mother was head. Everyone knew everybody in the village then. But the school is closed now and it has been sold. Devastatingly, the villagers no longer know each other. The daily excuse for meeting at the school gates has gone. The social hub that the school represented is lost.

The National Association for Small Schools website tells how Devon and Somerset, faced with the escalating cost of transporting older pupils out of the area, propose that pupils work up to two days a week at their local village school. Such imaginative solutions to avoiding closures of small schools, or any school in Wales, should be aspired to.

Schools in England have rented out unwanted classrooms as workshops, while the villagers of Lowick in Cumbria tried to run their school as a co-operative venture until the financial burden proved too much. They now use the building as a community centre. Only an increase in the child population could justify its reopening. Hermon in Pembrokeshire fought a well-publicised battle to retain its school. It failed. Now the villagers are trying to raise the money to buy the premises as a community resource.

They need pound;120,000, a vast sum for a small school to find.

I believe that school property, inside and out, should be given free of charge, or offered on a peppercorn rent to the local community if it is closed down. That way schools could reopen and little feet could walk to school again. It's not very far.

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