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Quality is key for small schools

12 December 08 16:01 GMT

By Arwyn Jones
BBC Wales education correspondent

Few issues in Wales provoke such passionate reactions as the possible closure of small schools.

There have been legal challenges, protests and dozens of reviews and reports.

In some parts of Wales it dominated the council elections in May. Llais Gwynedd, for example, gained 12 seats on the promise of halting Gwynedd council's school re-organisation plans.

Two small schools have been saved for the time being, and a working group is currently looking at the way forward. The group, like hundreds of other councillors, have a very difficult task.

Councils have a limited budget, and small schools are more expensive per pupil than larger ones. There is also a higher percentage of empty places in small schools.

Estyn, the schools inspectors' organisation, gave evidence to the assembly's enterprise and learning committee on Wednesday. Estyn made it clear they thought councils and the assembly government weren't doing enough to get to grips with the issue of empty - or surplus - places.

The assembly government's figures show there are more than 80,000 empty places in schools in Wales. They cost £30m a year: money which could be used elsewhere, on new buildings, for example.

Estyn says the problem will become more pronounced as school populations continue to fall.

But according to those who campaign for small schools, this flies in the face of a generally accepted fact across the UK of a rising birthrate. They also say there's growing out-migration to rural areas from towns and cities.

Supporters of small schools, especially those in rural areas, say they're often the heart of the community. The pub, post office and garage have closed, they say, and the school is the glue which binds them.

Then there's the impact small school closure has on the Welsh language. According to campaigners, a school which promotes Welsh can contribute substantially to sustaining the language within the community. However, Estyn claimed there was no evidence that standards in Welsh decline when small schools in areas of Wales where Welsh is spoken by the majority close and pupils are transferred to larger schools.

The assembly's rural affairs sub-committee recently published a report on the future of rural schools, which made it quite clear the main and only factor to be considered was the quality of education offered to children.

The problem is that no-one can agree whether small schools offer a good education or not. Estyn says: "The quality of leadership and teaching is a more important factor than the overall size of a school."

But it also says leadership in small schools often suffers because heads have to teach instead of concentrate on managerial issues.

The Association of Small Schools says small schools offer a better education because there's a closer interaction between parents and teachers.

The committee's report makes a number of important recommendations which may go some way to resolving the conflict over the closure of small schools; transferring the right to hear appeals against school reorganisation proposals from the assembly government to an independent arbitrator; and communities should be included in the process.

These recommendations could mean two things if they are brought in. They take some the political pressure out of the equation when decisions are made. More importantly perhaps, parents will have an opportunity to contribute to decisions.

It may not solve the problems of empty places and higher costs; it may not even keep any schools open. But if campaigners know they've been part of the process it may make it easier if tough decisions have to be made.

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