Wales's third biggest city is booming, and nowhere is the effect more noticable than in local classrooms. Aled Blake reports
schools in Newport are bucking surplus places trends as a pupil boom enables the local authority to boast of the city's new-found appeal.
While other Welsh schools face an uncertain future with pupil numbers nosediving, classrooms in Wales's third largest city are thriving. The local authority calculates there will be an extra 2,076 more pupils in its schools by 2011, an 8.4 per cent rise in primary pupil numbers and 9.49 per cent at secondary. Plans are already in place for three extra secondary schools to cope with demand and replace dilapidated buildings.
A spokesperson for Newport council said the city's regeneration plans was a major factor behind its ballooning population and new allure. "Thousands of new homes are being built on the site of the Llanwern steelworks and people are flocking here from Cardiff and Bristol," he said.
But predictions for falling pupil numbers are also expected to go up elsewhere as a new formula for calculating surplus places in both primaries and secondaries is introduced.
All local education authorities will have to follow the new regulations by 2008, although Newport's calculations were based on the old More Open Enrolment (MOE) method, making their new pupil-roll estimates even more spectacular.
For years, heads have lamented the "unfairness" of the old formula, that took space within halls, and even cupboards, into consideration.
But the new calculations are to be based on space actually available for teaching, weakening local authority cases for closing down schools.
Gareth Jones, secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru, said the uncertainty over the issue of surplus places is "confounded" by population factors, such as migration and parental preference.
"The future will involve the reorganisation of secondary education and in some areas the closure of schools," he said.
Falling birth rates and an ageing population has led to school reorganisation plans across Wales.
But migration trends and the formula for working out school surplus places raises question marks over costly plans already in place. The Welsh Assembly government claim that if no action is taken, there could be around 113,300 empty seats in Welsh classes by 2014 accounting for 37,000 fewer pupils. Of Wales's 22 LEAs, 16 had significant surplus places in secondary schools in 2006.
And between January 2000 and January 2006, the number of pupils in nursery and primary schools across Wales fell by more than 23,000.
According to Assembly government data, Wrexham expects a further 15.7 per cent decline, with 1,817 fewer pupils by 2011.
It already has 2,790 empty places and a further decline could push its vacancy rate to 35 per cent - higher than any other authority in Wales.
Mr Jones said: "The issues of surplus places and falling rolls in secondary school, coming as they do at a time when significant curriculum and assessment change is demanded, will place headteachers and their leadership teams under considerable pressure."
In Cardiff, plans to close 22 schools and amalgamate 10 others were met with a wall of opposition from schools, parents and communities when they were announced last year. The council estimated there were 8,000 surplus places in the city, costing around pound;3 million each year.
A committee of teachers, unions, governors, parents and council members was formed last October to rethink tactics. The final report is due in April.
A Welsh Assembly government spokesperson said the new formula for calculating surplus places could see some change.
"The new primary formula has not, in itself, produced a great deal of variation in the total capacity of schools," he said.
"Where the process of re-calculating the capacities of schools using the new formula has resulted in noticeably different results, this has generally been because the previous calcu-lations were out of date or contained errors.
"It is probable that there will be a similar effect when the secondary formula is introduced and schools are reassessed, possibly for the first time in several years.
"In addition, we have made more changes to the new secondary school formula when compared with the original MOE method than was necessary with the primary formula.
"Some of the changes we have made will tend to increase capacity, others will reduce it."
ESTIMATED LOSS OF PUPILS IN WELSH PRIMARIES IN 2011
Anglesey - 467
Blaenau Gwent - 259
Bridgend - 256
Caerphilly - 779
Cardiff - 471
Ceredigion - 112
Conwy - 935
Denbighshire - 82
Flintshire - 175
Gwynedd - 646
Merthyr Tydfil - 278
Monmouthshire - 756
Neath Port Talbot - 853
Pembrokeshire - 1,220
Powys - 858
Rhondda Cynon Taf - 562
Swansea - 688
Torfaen - 798
Vale of Glamorgan - 248
Wrexham - 1,817