Saviour for small schools on hit list
The Association of Communities in Wales with Small Schools (ACWSS) is to employ a full-time worker devoted to the cause of rural schools with fewer than 90 pupils after a year-long fundraising campaign.
It claims shutting down primaries in small rural villages can rip the heart out of local communities. But the Assembly government warned campaigners this week to expect closures where schools are not operating in the best interests of learners.
Deb Wozencraft, ACWSS secretary, said: "We want a person with the right background to take on the powers that be. People-power really can save schools - and we have a really positive message to get across.
"Schools in rural areas have always been a central part of the community but they are adapting even more, becoming vital to everyone - not just children."
Cris Tomas, newly-elected chairman of the ACWSS, said: "Often, small schools have well-embebded and essential community links which need to be developed, rather than closed down and made redundant."
Any small or rural school under threat of closure would be able to call on the services of the association's small schools champion. Appeals against closure can be made to the minister, but only after councils have formally consulted on proposals locally.
Jane Davidson, minister for education, lifelong learning and skills, is presently reviewing appeals against the proposed closures of three schools - in Ceredigion, Carmarthen and Pembrokeshire.
An Assembly government spokesperson said councils had to make a "robust" case for closure, as the likely impact on local communities and villages would be a strong consideration.
Earlier this year, Ponthir voluntary-controlled primary, in Torfaen, was spared from closure by the minister after she ruled the council did not have a strong enough case. In a letter to the local authority, she said there was no justification for closing Ponthir, which had the best key stage 2 test results in Torfaen in 2004.
Her spokesperson said that by 2013 there will be 100,000 fewer pupils in schools. There were 484 schools in Wales with 100 or fewer pupils last year (20045).
Ms Davidson added: "We are making ring-fenced funding available to provide additional support for small and rural schools that will total pound;4.1 million in 2006-07.
"Funding is intended to raise standards and encourage innovative ways of working, given the challenges of delivering the national curriculum in small schools with few staffing and other resources and support schools in providing facilities for the community. The funding recognises that there will continue to be a need for small schools in some rural areas."
The ACWSS this week held an exhibition at the Senedd in Cardiff Bay and handed in a 15,000-signature petition to highlight the plight of small schools in rural Wales. It calls on Ms Davidson to re-examine the the value of small schools.
Pupils from Llandinam primary - one of four in Powys possibly earmarked for closure - were among those at the event. Consultation will begin this autumn. Officials say closures are needed because of a pound;27m maintenance backlog on county schools.
The Small Schools Fund and ACWSS were set up after a failed High Court battle to keep open Hermon primary in Pembrokeshire. Cris Tomas was one of the parents at the school who pledged to set up a fighting fund to help others facing similar battles.
Supporters of the ACWSS include Wales Young Farmers Clubs, Wales National Federation of Women's Institutes, the Farmers Union of Wales and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales.