Good on both sides of the country fence

23rd November 2007 at 00:00
One of the hardest things in life is to say: "I was wrong." Another is to stand away from a situation, assess it calmly and ask: "Could I have been brainwashed?"

These were questions I was forced to ask when I went along to the Institute of Welsh Affairs event on the issue of small school closures in Wales, featuring research by David Reynolds and Meriel Jones.

Professor Reynolds deserves respect for getting up and speaking about his controversial findings and backing the closure of small schools in favour of larger ones. I could pick holes with the research, but nit-picking is easy.

William Rees, head of Monkton Primary in Pembroke, described his early teaching posts in smaller schools as being so family-oriented that it was virtually a permanent love-in. Speaking as a former pupil in such a set-up, somehow those old, well-made Victorian school buildings do generate that warm family feeling, I agree. But I am not sure about the comments on the old disadvantages of fewer curriculum activities.

Children should have opportunities to draw and use paint, but the traditional 3Rs are still important. Try teaching maths to pupils who haven't had their times-tables ingrained into their heads. They just can't see what can cancel and what numerical sequences exist.

I'd much rather we had fewer curriculum activities at primary level and all 11-year-olds were able to read fluently. But I do think children need more play and PE - a virtue of larger schools, apparently.

We played houses round tree trunks, building them with ferns. As a child who was taught in a rural school with an entire common for a playground, it is difficult to assess whether I missed out on this aspect. Possibly I did, but the boys were more likely to have been affected. They played with footballs but there weren't enough bodies for a proper team. Were they at a disadvantage when they went on to secondary school, I wonder?

Loneliness appears to be another negative aspect of a small-school primary education, especially during transition to secondary. I was the only one from my village that year who ended up in the grammar school. When I arrived, everybody else had a friend from their village. Some had gangs, but I had no one.

It took several years for me to find my way. I will never forget the remorseless way one town gang used to look for me at dinner times, baiting me constantly. Had I gone to a bigger school, I would have had a ready-made circle of friends and support.

Listening to Mr Rees describe the success of the merger of small schools in his area, I couldn't help but be caught up in his enthusiasm. Professor Reynolds made several very sensible recommendations. Suddenly, I was seeing a different picture from the one I have always had - the single-minded view that village schools must be retained at all costs.

Listening to Gerson Davies, director of education and children's services for Pembrokeshire, I realised the very difficult problems that have to be wrestled with. Wisely, he advocated that each locality should be considered independently and the needs of that community should be addressed.

So here I am, saying I can now see two sides of the story and it is possible that the amalgamation of some small schools is beneficial for teachers and children. In the meantime, may I sit on the fence for a little while and cogitate, country-style, with a piece of grass to chew.

Helen Yewlett is a former ICT teacher who was educated in a small rural school.

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