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26th November 2010 at 00:00
Schools must double as community resource in bid to break cycle of deprivation

Schools could be forced to close unless they start using their buildings as community resources outside school hours, a government official has warned.

Chris Tweedale, director of the Welsh Assembly government's school effectiveness group, said Wales was facing more school closures because of falling pupil rolls.

Speaking at education charity ContinYou Cymru's annual conference last week, Mr Tweedale said: "School buildings are a huge resource, but frankly, there are too many schools for the numbers of pupils we have in Wales.

"If they are used just from 9am to 3.30pm, then many more will close unless we start thinking of them as community buildings used as schools for part of the time."

Mr Tweedale told delegates that schools must have a community focus if they want to break the link between child poverty and low attainment. "Community focus is for all schools, not some - you can't opt out," he said. "To be a good school, you have to be a community-focused school."

But NUT Cymru secretary David Evans said Mr Tweedale was "wrong" to suggest that this is what schools should be doing.

"A school can be a focal point of a community and if it is set up correctly can be a valuable community resource," he said. "But we mustn't forget that a school's primary focus is education and we mustn't force them down this route if it's not right for them."

NAHT Cymru said the proposal would have "huge financial implications" for schools already struggling with their budgets, and NASUWT Cymru said heads and teachers should not be expected to take responsibility for out-of- hours activities.

Pam Boyd, executive director of ContinYou Cymru, said the community- focused schools grant, which had delivered pound;18 million to local authorities since 200506, has had both positive and negative effects.

"The extra money was welcome, but it has left us in a difficult situation . Many people now only recognise community-focused schools as those that have been given a grant," she said. "(But) there are many schools that have been working in this way for many years."

In his opening address to the conference, Douglas Wilson, head of schools at Powys County Council, said: "By deploying a community-focused approach, we can address poverty in its widest sense. It should not be debated or questioned - the evidence is stark already."

About 190,000 children and young people, 32 per cent of the population, live in poverty in Wales (see box), a higher proportion than in any other country in the UK. Only 21 per cent of the poorest fifth will get five good GCSE grades.

Nancy Kelley, co-director of policy and research at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: "Good education can have transformative power which can break the cycle of disadvantage from one generation to the next."

Ms Kelley said that although parental relationships and attitudes could affect pupils' outlook, good-quality pre-school and primary school experiences were very powerful and made a huge difference.

"Schools are central to tackling the attainment gap, particularly community-focused schools with their broad remit," she added.

POOR SHOW: The have-nots

- 192,000 children live in poverty, a higher proportion than in the other UK nations;

- 60 per cent of those are in workless households;

- 42 per cent are in lone parent families;

- 50 per cent don't live in the country's most deprived areas;

- 21 per cent of the poorest fifth of the population will get five good GCSEs, compared to 75 per cent of the richest fifth.

Source: Welsh AssemblyJoseph Rowntree Foundation.

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