London's Welsh school faces axe

16th April 1999 at 01:00
Campaigners need to raise pound;250,000 for new premises so that expatriate children can keep language skills up to speed, reports Chris Magowan

A TINY school in north London is pulling strings in high places in a fight to avoid closure. A coalition of artists, rock stars, members of parliament and the first lady of the Tory party have signed up to a campaign to save the London Welsh School in Willesden.

Ysgol Cymraeg Llundain, as it is otherwise known, is the only school outside Wales to teach in Welsh. It has just 17 full-time pupils, but talk of its demise has raised hackles in some of the most exalted circles.

Conservative leader William Hague's wife, Ffion, has promised "any help she can". The rock group Manic Street Preachers has donated pound;200 to its fighting fund and Wales's 40 MPs have come out in support.

Legendary singer Tom Jones has donated a jacket to a school auction and Royal Academician Sir Kyffin Williams has sent in a painting. Lawrence Llewellyn-Bower, of BBC's Changing Rooms programme, has volunteered to deliver a fund-raising lecture.

Alison Garrard, chairwoman of the school's parent-teachers' association, said: "We have got some contacts in high places, but not just that. The phone hasn't stopped ringing from ordinary people in Wales and in London saying that they would be horrified if it closed."

The London Welsh School is under threat because the Presbyterian chapel which has housed it since 1958, when it moved from the London Welsh Club in Gray's Inn Road, is closing.

"There have been about five or six people attending the chapel and they have been struggling for the last 10 years and now they feel they have got to call it a day," Mrs Garrard explained. "The chapel is closing in June and we have got until July to find a new place."

The problem has been made worse by the school's own success. Its pupil roll has doubled over the past five years and is expected to increase by nearly a quarter next year. To cope with the increased demand, a second teacher has had to be hired, stretching funds to the limit.

But a three-pronged strategy to avoid closure has been organised. The school, which has always been self-funded, has applied for voluntary-aided status. If successful, this could provide up to 85 per cent of running costs.

The Welsh Office has also been asked for a pound;22,000 short-term loan to tide the school over while the application is being decided, and parents and teachers are harnessing their celebrity support to help raise the pound;250,000 needed for a new site.

Only pound;3,500 has been collected so far, but Mrs Garrard is buoyant. "People realise the importance of having a Welsh school in London. It is a practicality. If people are moving back to Wales and want their children to go into Welsh-medium schools then they need continuity," she said.

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