'Spiral of decline' fear'
Tens of thousands of school places are unfilled across Wales, leaving the future of many schools uncertain. Some schools are already operating at less than 75 per cent capacity and are forecasting many more vacancies in five years' time unless action is taken.
Recent figures show more than 9,000 surplus places in Rhondda Cynon Taff, which has witnessed large urban depopulation since the decline of its mining industry, while in Carmarthenshire there is room for another 4,282 primary school pupils. Overall, 78,380 school places in Wales are unfilled, according to the Welsh Assembly government. This represents 14.7 per cent of all places.
Cardiff council's recently published school organisation plan said schools with large surplus numbers could be putting pupils at an "educational disadvantage". Such schools, it said, had the "inevitable consequence of budget cuts, the loss of staff and entry into a spiral of decline regarding financial viability and morale".
Demand for Welsh-medium primary education is growing in the capital, but the report showed that 2,810 places would still need to be shed to reduce surplus capacity in its other schools.
Falling birth rates and a decline in the migration of young families to Wales are thought to be behind the drop in school rolls. But Gethin Lewis, of the National Union of Teachers Cymru, warned that the figures were being used as an excuse to close more schools and save money.
"Total figures for a whole authority are misleading and do not reflect what is going on at individual schools," he said. "While there could be a surplus of a few thousand across an entire authority area, this would equate to perhaps only three or four surplus places in each classroom.
"We should be benefiting by having smaller class sizes or using the extra capacity for libraries or music rooms."
Councils are reporting particularly large surpluses in primary schools and in rural areas. In Pembrokeshire there are currently 700 spare places in primary and secondary schools and that figure is expected to quadruple by 2009. There are more than 2,500 surplus primary places in Powys and nearly 2,000 in Ceredigion. Further north, a quarter of primary schools in Gwynedd have a "significant surplus".
Councils say the surpluses are costing them millions of pounds a year and many are considering radical options to reduce capacity. Mothballing buildings, school amalgamations and revised catchment areas are all being discussed, as well as school closures.
But Geraint Davies, of the National Association of School Teachers Union of Women Teachers Cymru, warned that closing schools was not the answer.
"Closures are a short-term measure because once a school is closed it will never be reopened," he said. "Falling birth rates and the sharp decline in inward migration is a problem now, but in 20 years' time it may be reversed. We need new and innovative ideas to address this issue."
Some authorities have done just this. Carmarthenshire has adopted a policy of federated schools, joining groups of smaller schools together to share staff and facilities. A spokesperson for the authority said: "We are not looking at surpluses as an individual problem, because social factors are changing all the time. We have a strategy to modernise how education is delivered and we are constantly thinking of new ways of adapting to varying numbers."
Gwynedd education authority also says it is keen to look at different measures, such as removing temporary buildings and re-modelling existing resources for space.
In Conwy, where there are 1,400 spare places in primary schools and 595 in secondaries, the council says it uses spare capacity to develop community education facilities or libraries and music rooms.
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