Closure threat as pupil rolls decline

8th April 2005 at 01:00
Falling pupil rolls could lead to secondary school closures over the next seven years - in addition to the threat to up to 200 Welsh primaries reported this week.

Government projections suggest there will be 25,100 fewer secondary pupils (including sixth-formers) in 2012 compared to last year (2003-04). That equates to 26 average-sized Welsh secondary schools of 950 pupils.

The same statistics show primary pupil numbers are expected to fall by 20,600 - the equivalent of 119 average-sized schools (of 173 pupils each) over the same period. The number of primary closures could be much higher, if small schools - which make up a significant minority of Welsh provision - are targeted by LEAs under pressure to reduce surplus places and improve often Victorian facilities for pupils and teachers.

Carmarthenshire has already embarked on a controversial reorganisation involving closing up to 40 schools and building some modern replacements, while plans for 14 closures in Denbighshire have been shelved after protests from parents, politicians and teachers. Falling rolls are a Wales-wide problem.

The Welsh Local Government Association this week announced it would be reviewing its policies on small schools and surplus places, as an Assembly government adviser claimed that up to 200 primaries could close in the next five years.

Professor David Reynolds, speaking this week on Taro Naw, BBC Wales's current affairs programme on S4C, predicted one in six or seven small rural schools could disappear. Unlike in England, there is no presumption in favour of keeping rural schools open, and they can cost significantly more per pupil to run - in excess of pound;6,000 a year, compared to a Welsh average of Pounds 3,368. But Professor Reynolds, from Exeter university, told TES Cymru that these "inequalities in resources" could be overcome by making small schools "centres of their community". Schools could provide a base for other public services, such as policing, health and social services. They could draw (in some areas) on European Union cash for regeneration, use spare classrooms as business start-up units, and promote Welsh language learning.

Small secondary schools would be in an even stronger position than primaries to offer such services, because they already have good ICT facilities, for example. He added: "If you look at things such as value added, small schools do well academically because often the populations they serve are really quite deprived. And everybody seems to believe they add other kinds of things. Schools are cohesive, they give a sense of belonging, and they are good for the language."

The National Association of Head Teachers Cymru advocates funding from outside education budgets for schools that also fulfil a community purpose.

Anna Brychan, the association's director, said: "Some hard decisions will have to be made. However, a mass closure programme is not the answer."

The Assembly government says primary closures have averaged only three a year since 1995. Organising school places is the responsibility of LEAs, subject to statutory procedures.

But closures can be the "right solution in some circumstances", said a spokesperson.

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