Case for closure will not convince communities

23rd November 2007 at 00:00
Well, the Institute of Welsh Affairs' small school closure report has certainly caused a stir. Yet the morning after the dizzy launch, the hangover kicked in as the document was read and its substance questioned beyond the sound-bite hype.

The "evidence" supporting small-school closures is based on six schools in Pembrokeshire and Powys, three of which have remained anonymous at the request of Powys county council. This in itself is questionable: why has the local authority, which pushed so hard for closures in the first place, had this kind of input in a report that claims to put children's best educational interests at its heart?

While the report finds that educational performance and attitude towards the receiving school does not degenerate, it does not provide strong evidence, with performance data for Powys being unavailable.

I have no concern about the teaching standards of small schools under threat in Powys because the Estyn reports demonstrate that they are offering a high level of education. I take comfort from the fact that the eight children interviewed were happier or equally happy in their schooling after closure.

This is, of course, great news but it cannot be the basis for advocating closure of small schools - for which I worry it may be used. In small rural areas, a school is far more than just a space for learning times-tables. It is a focal point for social activity. It allows for interaction, not only between children during and after school but also parents at the school gates - and even older members of the community through school productions.

The school is a prerequisite for young families to move to an area, and without such economic activity they remain stagnant, adding to the likelihood of closure of local services and schools. It's certainly a very vicious circle.

The report states: "It is the people rather than a school building who create a community." But without the building there may not be a community.

The investigation is a useful addition to this emotive debate and raises important concerns about the lack of widespread and inclusive consultation when local authorities are considering closure. But the report could be used to justify small rural school closures, even though it does not look at reasons for them. Nor does it examine alternatives to closure.

There is a great need for more imaginative considerations such as federation and clustering systems which have been so successful in parts of England. These could well offer the council a cost-effective solution to the environmentally unfriendly bussing of young children around the countryside.

This report will not convince parents and communities to drop their gauntlet and admit defeat in the battle for small schools. Indeed, its attack may serve to add fuel to their anger and sense of injustice.

Kirsty Williams is the Welsh Lib Dem education spokesperson.

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