Fear of safety in numbers

4th July 1997 at 01:00
Andrew Mourant on opposition to plans to cluster primaries

Headteachers are concerned at plans to save small primaries in a Welsh county by organising them in clusters of two or three schools.

About 35 schools with fewer than 41 pupils in Carmarthenshire - a quarter of the county's 140 primaries - could pool heads and specialist teachers. Two clusters of three schools apiece have already been formed.

Headteachers will meet on July 14 to discuss the issue with the National Association of Head Teachers' Welsh organiser.

David Winfield, the union's Welsh secretary, has already accused the local authority of failing to consult interested parties adequately. "We're extremely concerned about the speed at which this is proceeding," he said.

Director of education Keith Davies said that clustering was being looked at instead of closure, an automatic consideration when pupil numbers fall below 16. He added it was being pursued for educational not financial reasons.

National Association of Head Teachers' organiser in Wales, Anne Hovey said she was concerned at the piecemeal, informal way in which clustering was being introduced. She added: "There is no requirement to have a public proposal for federation in the way that you must have for a proposed closure. The Secretary of State has no input."

One of the union's main concerns is accountability. For instance without an appointed deputy head on site, it is unclear where responsibility will lie for management and health and safety matters. But Mr Davies said: "We have many split sites where there isn't a deputy. It is possible to delegate responsibility to other staff."

It costs almost Pounds 4,700 a year to educate a child in a remote primary in rural west Wales, triple the cost in a larger urban school. But it was security, not cash or inability to deliver the national curriculum, that drove the first Carmarthenshire schools to cluster together.

The trailblazer was Llansaint primary, where numbers had dropped to 10 and there was a lone female teacher. Chair of governors Mair Stephens said: "Because it's a rural school, there was a concern about her safety."

Governors - who share responsibility for two neighbouring schools, 20-pupil Idole and 25-pupil Llangyadeyrn - considered pooling resources.

Two of the three heads were about to retire and last September, Glyn Brodrick, head of Llangyadeyrn and a member of the Welsh teaching union UCAC, took charge. Mr Brodrick says the scheme is working despite logistical problems - the three schools are up to seven miles apart.

The cluster is served by nine members of staff working equivalent hours to 6.6 full-time teachers. Mr Brodrick says the key is having peripatetic specialists delivering subjects such as music and PE. Pupils are bussed in to join forces for PE classes, and the three schools are able to field a netball team and a rugby team.

Mr Brodrick said it was too early to gauge the costs of the move. He added: "Any savings there would have been by not having two heads are taken back by an increase in teaching staff to allow the head more non-contact time for administration. We've held back on capitation expenditure this year because we want to make an audit of resources in all three schools."

A second federation embracing three small schools at Llangadog, Bethlehem and Gwynfe was set up at Easter. At the time, parents with children at Llangadog protested at having to share their head's teaching time with the other schools.

The fears of the critics of clustering are echoed by NAHT general secretary David Hart. "I am concerned about clustering for the sake of clustering because that isn't the answer to the budgetary problem. I would regard it as the counsel of despair," he said.

A report for the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers by Coopers Lybrand found that six other authorities were clustering schools.

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