Falling rolls mean more Powys schools could close. reports George Wright
More primary school closures may be needed in Powys if the most sparsely populated county in England and Wales is to deal successfully with falling pupil numbers. A report from inspection agency Estyn says almost one-fifth of primary places (3,105 out of 11,400) in Powys are unfilled.
Of the county's 109 primary schools, 43 have a surplus greater than a quarter of the numbers on roll, placing them in the "significant surplus" category under Assembly government guidelines.
The closure of two primary schools by the local education authority has had a "limited impact" on surplus places, according to Estyn's report.
Libanus and Trecastle schools, near Brecon, are to close this summer despite strong opposition from their local communities. Powys decided to shut the schools because the cost of educating children there ranged from Pounds 6,000-8,000 per year, compared to a Powys average of around pound;2,600.
The pressure for school reorganisation is increased by a school repairs backlog of pound;40 million and a high-cost rural transport scheme that ran more than pound;500m over budget last year, according to the report.
Estyn found that the authority had, until recently, lacked "the clear political strategic leadership that is needed to tackle this issue". But the report notes that the situation is improving "as the chief executive and senior members are now committed to taking difficult decisions". The LEA is carrying out a review of all its schools, due to be published in July.
John Evans, Powys's communications manager, said council members understood the issues regarding falling pupil numbers and "the financial effects of continuing to support the number of small schools in Powys".
But he added: "The strong role many of these schools play in their community means that there is usually strong local support for the schools and achieving a decision to effect closure is extremely difficult.
Innovative arrangements which continue to provide a community focus need to be further explored."
Rhys Williams, spokesman for the National Union of Teachers Cymru, said the union was not opposed to reorganisation, providing there is full consultation with local communities and no compulsory redundancies.
He said: "A closure should be based on educational grounds, not solely on economic grounds. There are excellent two-teacher schools in Powys which have had very good Estyn inspections and where the teachers pride themselves on being able to cover and teach the national curriculum in its breadth and depth to the children.
"On the other hand, there are schools whose old buildings are clearly not fit for purpose for the 21st century. Each case needs to be looked at individually. Wales has an economy of scale which means this is practical.
Distance travelled, condition of buildings, number of children at the school are all factors to be taken into account."
An Assembly government spokesperson said: "It is for LEAs to consider how they organise their stock of school places most effectively, taking account of local needs. There are statutory procedures to be followed if an LEA identifies the need for changes. These must always begin with full consultation with local people."
* Around a fifth of the 125,000 population speaks Welsh.
* Employment rates are the highest in Wales but average incomes are among the lowest in Britain.
* Powys has 109 primaries, 13 secondaries, and three special schools.
* Just over half the primaries have less than 90 pupils, and three-quarters less than 130.
* Just over 4 per cent of pupils have statements of special educational needs (Welsh average 3.3 per cent).
* Almost one in 10 pupils is entitled to free school meals (Welsh average 17.6 per cent)
* Two-fifths of the council's total budget is spent on education.
* The council spends more on education than is allocated by the Assembly government.
* Spending in the current year is pound;2,698 per primary pupil and Pounds 3,546 per secondary.
* More than half of secondaries and 38 per cent of primaries are in deficit.