At a time of falling pupil numbers, confederation could keep smaller schools open, writes Alan Evans
Almost a third of primary schools in Wales are small schools. They have five teachers or fewer and often the headteacher has substantial classroom duties.
In counties such as Anglesey, Ceredigion and Gwynedd the small school is the typical school. By and large they provide good education within easy travelling distance for local children and they are centres of civil and social pride, enriching village and community life.
Small schools have been at risk in the past, but the current challenge is falling pupil numbers. At the same time, the Assembly government has made two commitments which affect the future of primaries: the introduction of the new foundation stage for three to seven-year-olds, and ensuring school buildings are "fit for purpose" by 2010.
These developments add to the pressure to restructure and close small schools. Yet it does not have to be this way.
In Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Spain, there is specialist provision and support for small schools. In these countries there is a profound belief that it is good for children and their families if they are educated in familiar surroundings and not facing a long, tiring journey to school every day.
They also believe local schools provide a focus for rural communities, and that much beneficial social learning takes place through mixed-age classes and being able to draw on the community to support pupil learning.
In some of these countries, small schools are supported by special resource centres for teachers and educational camps for pupils, while others provide special incentives to teach in small schools. There is a strong belief that the quality of learning and overall educational development of the child is better provided by a school in their local community.
The arguments for saving small schools in these countries apply equally well to Wales. Here, there is the additional issue of the role they play in keeping the Welsh language alive in Welsh-speaking villages. English would quickly become the language of the playground if the schools were merged.
There are models which can be used to ensure suitable support for our small schools. They have for decades, often with the support of their local authority, taken part in clustering arrangements which involve sharing and pooling policies, curricular materials, assessment arrangements and professional development activities.
Many clusters in Wales are based on association or co-operation - involving informal and formal arrangements between heads to share and pool documentation, policies and activities. It is clear from experience that the impact of these forms of clustering are, at best, limited.
However, if school clusters embraced genuine partnership and confederation this would bring a new dimension. These forms of clustering are much more extensive and involve the exchange of teachers, shared specialist activity in music, drama and sport, pupils working together on joint projects, agreement on job descriptions for all new staff in partnership schools, the appointment of staff to be used across schools and budget sharing.
This form of "deep-impact" clustering requires a joint committee, formed from the governing bodies of the partner schools, to provide the leadership and vision that are needed to meet the challenging circumstances facing small schools.
What, then, is the role of the Assembly in their future in Wales? With the support of local authorities, it should set out its vision for viable and effective small schools that are able to provide high-quality education for their pupils in the 21st century.
The Assembly has a role in making it clear that small schools which operate in isolation or in ineffective clusters, face a bleak future involving either closure or compulsory merger into a federation - which would involve just one governing body and one head responsible for the management and resourcing of several sites within a wider local community.
On the other hand, small schools have the option of entering voluntarily into the partnership and confederation model of clustering. This is more participatory and provides schools and their communities with far more attractive opportunities - particularly if the Assembly provided a direct grant for those prepared to commit to this form of clustering.
The issue is whether the educational community and its leaders have the will to seize the opportunity. The survival of small schools is far too important for the government to abdicate responsibility.
Alan Evans is a senior research consultant at Cardiff university's school of social sciences, and the former co-ordinator of the Small Schools Project Wales