It's a small world and worth saving

14th October 2005 at 01:00
Most weeks I sit in the Assembly chamber and listen to the government's latest good news story of agendas being pushed forward, opportunities extended, talk of pathways and connections, money for this initiative or that.

Yet equally, most weeks I talk to officials, to heads and staff, to principals and lecturers, to parents and to pupils, and the reality of their experience out there at the chalkface is not so rosy.

Most of us who know the education sector know that the school funding system is an impenetrable fog. There is no audit trail to follow the money from a government initiative to an individual school; no way of predicting the impact on the school budget or the consequences for the head and governors.

One of my staff, a primary school governor, told me of how the school has raided the reserves, put up class sizes, deferred repairs and seriously considered making the nursery nurse redundant in order to fund a part-time teacher to cover for planning, preparation and assessment time for all teachers. Where was the funding ?

That school is not alone. So as Plaid Cymru's shadow education minister, I used one of our party debates to push through the establishment of a committee to look into and report back on all aspects of school funding.

The minority government fiercely opposed it, and all 29 Labour members voted against it. But with the new political reality in the Assembly, the opposition won. This committee has been widely welcomed by the unions and professionals. One head (not a party member) said "nothing but good can come of it".

It may well prove to be one of the most important committees in the Welsh Assembly, helping divorce government spin from reality, bringing a new clarity to the complexities of the funding system and, perhaps more importantly, exposing its flaws.

Plaid Cymru, together with the other opposition parties, has also recognised the financial problems facing local authorities by voting down the Assembly government's draft budget and insisting that it comes back with proposals for a fund to help small schools, and more funding for frontline education services. As I write, we are engaged in talks.

In an era of falling rolls, a funding formula driven largely by pupil numbers will inevitably have the greatest impact on our smallest schools, which lack the resources and flexibility to adapt.

Some local authorities may be using the requirement on them to review surplus school places as a chance to close smaller schools. Is it coincidence that those earmarked for closure in Denbighshire recently were smaller schools, the most expensive to run in terms of cost per pupil?

Together with 1 per cent efficiency savings imposed by the Assembly on local authorities, these factors threaten the viability of smaller schools with the consequence that pupils will end up being taught in ever-larger schools, in larger villages or towns, many miles from home.

The Department for Education and Skills in England introduced a presumption against closing small rural schools in 1998. No such presumption exists in Wales.

In 2004, more primary schools were closed in Wales than in England. What is driving this process forward? If it is this government's unstated policy for pupils to be taught in ever-larger schools, ever further away from their own communities, why doesn't it say so?

Blindly cutting surplus places now by shutting smaller schools will have a hugely detrimental effect on those communities. We are on the threshold of major social change but there seems to be little proper debate, forethought or planning.

The potential exists for schools to be developed more creatively; as centres for IT, adult education, pre-school and after-school care, and even the delivery of health and local government services. Other sources of funding would naturally come into play.

The closure of any school should be a last resort. Before it is too late we ought to radically rethink the relationship between a school and its community.

Plaid Cymru Assembly member Janet Ryder is shadow education minister

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