We don't need closure

29th April 2005 at 01:00
Closing down small schools is a short-sighted and damaging policy, writes David Reynolds

The past few months have seen growing controversy about the future of small, mostly rural primary schools. Provoked by plans in Carmarthenshire and Denbighshire to close or merge more than 50 schools, protesters have defended them - aided by the Welsh-language lobby, which views them as linguistic bastions.

The Assembly government refuses to take any view on the issue, a rather surprising position, given the education and lifelong learning minister Jane Davidson's willingness to venture opinions on virtually everything else under the educational sun.

Behind Denbighshire and Carmarthenshire there are apparently a host of other authorities waiting to announce their own "review" of school places - a euphemism for wholesale closures. Pembrokeshire, Gwynedd, Ceredigion, Anglesey and even some of the urban authorities like Cardiff, are said to be watching events with "keen interest".

The factors that are operating are well known. The resource settlements for local authorities will be less generous in the future than in the immediate past. The school workforce reforms are argued by the Welsh Local Government Association to be only partially-funded in Wales, but fully-funded in England.

Pupil numbers in the primary age cohort are falling by 10 to 15 per cent, depending on the locality. Surplus places that consume resources to no good purpose are higher in Wales than in England. And, of course, small schools consume resources - up to between pound;6,000 and pound;9,000, per pupil, depending on their size.

Most important of all, and totally neglected in the current controversy, the Assembly's requirement that all school buildings are "fit for purpose" by 2010 requires spending that is not possible, given the current resources in councils' capital expenditure plans.

Putting four or five schools together into a new area school with new buildings may end up costing substantially less per pupil than replacing each of the existing small schools with a new build.

The absurdity is, though, that there has been no nationally-based research conducted on the pros and cons of small primaries since the work of Roy Nash in the late 1970s. It would take a couple of months at most, and perhaps Pounds 20,000, to look at schools and catchment areas and see how the small schools are doing. But this is Wales and apparently we do not do this kind of thing, preferring to luxuriate in our biases instead.

What, then, is the best bet about these schools? First, all the available international evidence says that smaller schools get better results. But we are unsure about whether this applies to the very small schools of 20-40 pupils prevalent in Wales.

Secondly, whether small or very small, they add value in the areas to do with pupils' social and emotional development. As in most cases they are small, happy families, this is not surprising.

They also seem more able to stop the erosion of the Welsh language than the bigger, more urban schools based in communities that are more anglicised and more English speaking.

When local institutions such as the village shop, the pub, the garage and the post office have all disappeared, or are disappearing, it is the school that can preserve links and networks between people as the parents turn up at the beginning and end of school each day.

In England, the argument in defence of these schools has been won. Only about five out of 18,500 primary schools close per year, and the presumption is that the existing totality of schools will remain, even if that means paying Pounds 5-7,000 per pupil a year in a small rural school, in comparison with Pounds 2,500-3,500 per year in a large urban school. The money is assumed to be worth spending.

The way forward for us in Wales may be to explore how the schools can be helped to stay open, rather than to shut them. Many of them become community centres when they shut, so why not use the buildings for educational and community purposes when they are open?

Spare classrooms can be used as business incubation units, thereby attracting European Union funding for regeneration (Objective One). Social workers, community nurses and other professionals can be housed in the spare space, all contributing resources to keep the schools viable, as is routine practice in the little schools out in the plains of North America.

This would be a positive policy, would help reduce the expense of the small schools which critics attack, and be a distinctly Welsh solution. So why is nobody trying it? Answers on a postcard please.

David Reynolds is professor of education at the University of Exeter and lives in south Wales

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