Changes to admissions rules may increase pressure on authorities to close schools, Karen Thornton reports
Surplus places in schools could increase overnight without any change to pupil rolls, because of proposed changes to how admission figures are worked out.
Many councils in Wales are already considering controversial school closures and reorganisations, in a bid to reduce the numbers of empty desks in classrooms. Up to 700 jobs could go in Cardiff alone (TES Cymru, July 29).
Draft proposals on admissions could add to the pressure by getting rid of current rules which allow each pupil with a statement of special educational needs to count as three children.
They also fail to allow extra space for infant children, even though the new foundation stage for three to seven-year-olds, due by 2008, requires more room for play.
The "three for one" rule for SEN pupils was intended to ensure extra classroom space was provided for teaching assistants, equipment or wheelchair access. Some worried headteachers say that space allowance is still needed.
But officials say the rule has not been consistently applied, does not reflect individual pupils' needs and, in primary schools, takes no account of whether there is additional accommodation set aside for SEN children.
Anna Brychan, director of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, said she had already been contacted by the head of a Wrexham primary school, concerned about a 10-year-old pupil with muscular dystrophy who uses a wheelchair.
"She made the point that non-SEN children benefit hugely by working alongside SEN pupils in these cases," said Ms Brychan.
"Changing the three-for-one rule could well give the appearance of a greater number of surplus places, and that's precisely why we have concerns in terms of inclusion.
"If we move to a one-for-one system to solve what's seen as a surplus-places problem, there's a danger that schools' ability to offer genuinely inclusive education for SEN pupils alongside their peers in ordinary classrooms will be limited. Many SEN pupils do need more space than their peers."
There are also no plans for more classroom space for children in the new foundation phase. Officials considered raising the allowance from 1.8 square metres to 2.3 square metres for key stage 1 pupils.
But this was felt to be unworkable for a "large number" of popular primaries without the space to expand further. And allowing more space for KS1 could make admission numbers artificially low at KS2. "For this approach to work effectively all schools would have to be constructed with larger KS1 classrooms; with the current school building stock this is not achievable," says the consultation document.
Geraint Davies, secretary of teachers' union NASUWT Cymru, acknowledged the KS2 problem, but accused the Assembly government of a lack of joined-up thinking over the foundation phase.
He said: "If the Assembly hasn't built that into the equation, it's something we need to revisit, because adequate learning and play space are significant parts of the foundation phase. If the space is not there it must be created.
"This is another example of policy being introduced but not properly thought through. There is widespread support for the foundation phase, but it's on the understanding it's properly funded in terms of resources and space."
An Assembly government spokesman said it was encouraging LEAs to build bigger classrooms for early-years children, where new schools or extensions were planned. Schools can also choose to use their largest classrooms for foundation pupils.
He added: "Space standards for both indoor and outdoor play areas will be subject to further consideration during the foundation phase piloting. This will include the financial consequences of any change."
He conceded that the draft changes to the three-for-one rule will increase the capacity of some schools. But they should also reduce the annual variation in admission numbers arising from changes in SEN pupil numbers.
The draft guidance, which sets out how LEAs should calculate how many children a school can accommodate, says some primaries have been able to disguise surplus places by designating redundant classrooms as libraries or specialist teaching areas.
Conversely, pupils in over-subscribed schools miss out because IT suites and libraries are being converted to classrooms.
Consultations close on October 20. See www.learning.wales.gov.uk