Children's commissioner for Wales says better mechanisms needed to assuage sense of loss
Pupils and staff at schools threatened with closure need more emotional support, the children's commissioner for Wales said this week.
Keith Towler spoke out about the stress of school closure battles during a visit to his alma mater, Llanedeyrn High in Cardiff.
The school, which has recently been taken out of special measures by Welsh inspectorate Estyn, faces closure under Cardiff City Council's reorganisation plans.
But the proposals have met with great resistance. Parents and governors are campaigning to keep the school open, and have enlisted another famous ex-pupil to their cause - world champion hurdler Colin Jackson.
"It is clear school reorganisation is an emotional time and pupils are going to need support," said Mr Towler. "Councils have to make sure they put good support mechanisms in place. I think they haven't given it the emphasis they should."
Mr Towler was a Year 7 pupil at the school in 1970. "I was one of the first products of the school," he said. "It's the first time I've been back since I left the sixth form. The head, teachers, governors and pupils have really turned the school around - it is a fantastic achievement."
He said consultations on closures should involve emotional support for young pupils. "At the consultation stage, you ought to be able to plan so that other agencies - youth professionals and people working in children's services - can work out how they can support children through the ordeal," he said.
School reorganisation was taken up by acting children's commissioner Maria Battle last year, after her office received a flood of complaints about school closure plans and lack of consultation with pupils and parents.
In her annual review, she said pupils needed to be consulted on future plans and condemned Assembly government guidance that did not list children as "interested parties" in consultation.
Mr Towler, who visited his former school by invitation, said it was vital children should have the chance to voice their concerns.
"It's also important that councils actively demonstrate that they're listening," he added.
Mr Towler said he was confident his office would hear about pupils' problems via the school ambassador scheme, in which pupils are nominated to take up issues in an individual school and pupil forums.
"I hear reports about children getting really upset over plans to close their school and it will have an impact on health and children's services," he said.
Mr Towler said it was important that all children attending schools earmarked for closure should have the chance to complete their education there.
Local authorities in Wales came under increasing pressure last year from the Assembly government, Estyn and the Wales Audit Office to reorganise schools in response to falling pupil numbers.
Many of the plans have been made public. The most recent figures suggest there are 76,000 unfilled places in Wales's schools.
In January, Llanedeyrn High in Cardiff was removed from special measures after making great progress. The school, with just under 800 pupils, which opened in 1970, once had the unenviable record of 356 temporary exclusions and a name for bad behaviour and poor results.
Under present plans, pupils would finish their education at Llanedeyrn, but it will not take on any Year 7 pupils from September 2008.
Pupils living in the catchment area would go to Llanishen or Cardiff High.
A protest walk was planned from Llanedeyrn to Llanishen to show how far children would have to walk to get to school. But it was cancelled last week over health and safety worries.