Warsaw sizes up Welsh schools
A federation of Polish headteachers, who have defied their government by setting up hundreds of small schools after many were closed, arrived in Wales last week warning that plans to close small schools were misguided.
Alina Kozinska-Baldyga, director of the Federation of Educational Initiatives in Warsaw, had an overwhelmingly positive message for those campaigning to save Wales's small schools: "If we managed to deal with communism, nothing can stop us".
During a week-long visit, the Polish heads shared their inspirational stories with officials. But they had also come to see community schools in Wales, where huge strides have been made in opening schools up to tight- knit communities after hours.
In Poland, schools are very much at the heart of village life - 38 per cent of the population live in rural areas. Yet, over the past decade, Warsaw has closed thousands of kindergartens and primaries. Campaigners are also concerned that fewer children attend pre-school nursery in Poland than in any other EU country.
In protest, the federation has set up 130 kindergartens and more than 300 small schools across Poland. They are run by associations and parents are very involved. Their efforts have gained government recognition and funding.
"Of course, small schools are more expensive than larger ones," said Ms Kozinska-Baldyga, but she strongly believes they are a worthwhile investment.
"The liquidation of small rural schools is a problem in every country. But you can see how this kind of education is changing rural society in Poland.
"In Poland, rural communities are almost always poor, and they are the ones who have been most active in schools - it is a revolution in the countryside."
In one new school, teachers and parents worked for the first year with no funding. Staff had to raise money for fuel to keep the building warm. Now the school receives a budget from the state.
In Wales, there has been widespread opposition to the closure of small schools in response to falling pupil rolls, particularly in Welsh-speaking heartlands. Plaid Cymru lost power in Gwynedd in May over plans to close 29 schools and merge dozens of others.
During their visit, the Polish heads met Welsh experts, including Assembly Members Leanne Wood and Alun Davies, chair of the rural sub-committee, which is about to release its findings on small school closures.
Although most of Poland's new small schools are in rural areas, some have also been established in cities where a traditional sense of community had vanished.
Anna Florek, head and founder of a civic kindergarten in Warsaw, said the school had made a huge difference to the lives of children and their parents in the area.
The Polish delegates also met people from ContinYou, a charity that is working with European countries to develop international standards for community schools.
Martin Fitton, an independent consultant, organised the visit alongside the Association of Communities in Wales with Small Schools. He said the Poles' experience would give a framework for challenging assumptions about small schools in Wales.
The federation plans to seek further recognition from the Polish government and aims to make rural schools a key issue during Poland's 2011 EU presidency.
Small is beautiful, page 37.