Take care with falling rolls
CLOSING SCHOOLS with surplus places should not become a fait accompli by local authorities desperate to save money, says the body representing school governors in Wales.
Instead, Governors Wales is calling for more options for dealing with falling pupil rolls. It also wants consultations on the future of schools to become more open and transparent.
Falling school rolls are a problem affecting LAs across the country due to the declining birth rate and a slow-down in the inward migration of young families to Wales.
The thorny issue of surplus places was one of the themes of the body's latest conference, held at the Quay Hotel and Spa in Deganwy, Conwy, late last month.
Latest figures from local authorities have revealed that there are now 76,000 unfilled school places across Wales. All of the 22 local authorities have reorganisation plans in place.
But Chair Hugh Pattrick told delegates: "This is not just a question of closing schools.
"Governors need to look at it from various perspectives and the starting point has to be the child. Some authorities are looking at saving money and reducing the number of schools, while others are looking at it from a geographical perspective.
"In some rural areas there can be distances of 10 or 15 miles between primary schools."
According to Welsh inspectorate Estyn, it costs Wrexham council nearly Pounds 1.8 million a year to fund its 4,427 surplus spaces in the primary and secondary sectors.
In Flintshire, the annual cost of unfilled places is pound;1.2m, while in Gwynedd the bill amounts to pound;1.4m.
Arwyn Thomas, from Estyn, told delegates at the conference that the status quo was not an option. He added that LAs needed to develop strategies to promote innovative and flexible ways of working in small schools.
These include formal and informal clustering, and formal and informal federation as well as the creation of area schools with good transport links.
Mr Thomas also said that improvements in the quality of buildings have a beneficial effect on the quality of teaching and morale of staff, which has a positive effect on pupil performance.
Teaching unions subscribe to the view that closing small schools is only a short-term measure which does not address the core problems. They want other options to be more widely promoted.
Gruff Hughes, general secretary of Welsh-medium education union UCAC, said: "We do appreciate that LAs are facing huge financial difficulties, but we are asking them to look carefully at all other alternatives such as federated schools which have one head, clusters of smaller schools which share staff and facilities, or using buildings for community use.
"School closures must be a last resort because we'll never get them back."
Former teacher-turned-broadcaster Roy Noble hosted the conference, which brought governors from six North Wales counties together for the first time.
Representatives from schools, LAs, and officials from the department of education, lifelong learning and skills were also present.