United front on tackling surplus

Karen Thornton & Nicola Porter

Small primary schools will remain a feature of education in north Wales, despite falling pupil numbers. But they will have to work more closely together, councillors were told this week. Gwynedd and Flintshire are the latest authorities to launch reviews to tackle rising surplus places.

As TES Cymru went to press, a working party report on primary school organisation was due before Gwynedd councillors. It says small schools will continue, but warns the current arrangements "are not sustainable".

As of January this year, the average Gwynedd primary had only 97 pupils.

Three out of five of the county's 106 primaries are classed as small because pupil numbers are 90 or below.

Children in small schools are missing out on social interaction with youngsters of their own age and ability, says the report. Their heads carry heavy teaching workloads in addition to their leadership duties, while teachers are missing out on professional and career development opportunities.

And Gwynedd's policy of protecting the budgets of the smallest schools means larger primaries elsewhere - often serving the poorest children - are getting much less cash per pupil.

But instead of closures, the report argues that co-operation between schools must increase, for example, via federations, where a single head and governing body are responsible for two or more schools.

Consultations end in December. Dr Gwynne Jones, head of schools' services, said: "We want to reach a consensus on how best to provide sustainable education."

In Flintshire, councillors agreed this week to set up a school organisation review group, including head representatives. A report to the council says primary and secondary pupil numbers are expected to fall by up to 1,873 and 1,896 respectively by 2023.

Two of the authority's 12 secondaries, and 17 of the 75 primaries, already have more than a fifth of places standing empty. Four secondaries and 14 primaries are classified as "small".

Meanwhile, there is a pound;35 million school buildings repairs backlog, with some schools lacking halls, sports facilities, information and communications technology areas, libraries and staffrooms.

Education director John Clutton, in his report to the council's executive, argues for a Flintshire-wide approach to reorganisation, to ensure closures do not affect some communities disproportionately. But he warns the costs are likely to be considerable, and funding will need to come from the Assembly, the council's own capital spending, borrowing, and selling off surplus school sites.

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Karen Thornton & Nicola Porter

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