Denbighshire County Council have started on the process of reorganising education in Denbighshire.
The schools under consideration are: Ysgol Maes Hyfryd, Cynwyd; Ysgol Bro Elwern, Gwyddelwern; Ysgol Llandrillo; Ysgol Carrog; Ysgol Glyndyfrdwy; Ysgol Betws Gwerfil Goch; and Ysgol Caer Drewyn, Corwen.
The Cabinet decided to support the option that is being referred to as ‘rationalisation’. Which is to keep Maes Hyfryd and Caer Drewyn, and close three or four of the other five schools.
You can see the relevant documents here.
For an idea of where I stand on the importance of community led primary education, please copy and translate this document here.
That speech makes my position clear, stating my support to keeping education within the community when possible, as close as possible to the family unit, especially when considering the need to support and strengthen the Welsh language.
But Denbighshire’s documents gives me cause for concern. This paragraph in the first page (Background) sets the tone for the whole document and in its turn the whole debate around schools:
The Welsh Assembly have made it clear that local authorities will not be able to attract capital funding unless the issue of empty places is dealt with. There are a considerable number of schools within our county with high levels of unfilled places. As a result the current number of schools within the county is unsustainable if we want to provide the best possible learning environments and facilities for our children and young people.
It follows the same argument given during every schools reorganisation process in rural Wales, that of empty spaces with forecasts predicting many more empty spaces in the future.
I’m afraid that I can’t agree with this, and believe it to be wrong.
Firstly what do they mean by ‘empty spaces’? Well to put it simply it means that the school is capable of receiving more pupils. But it doesn’t follow that there are ‘empty spaces’, because in order for there to be ‘empty spaces’ you must have a minimum number of pupils, and there’s no such minimum requirement.
If there are empty teaching rooms with no prospect of them being used any time soon then why not de-commission them and use them for other purposes? After all the Government is quick enough to tell our farmers to diversify and find other uses for their resources, the same should also be true of public buildings.
Education Minister Leighton Andrews must be complemented for saying that school closures shouldn’t be based on lack of funding. However it seems to me that Local Authorities use ‘empty spaces’ as an excuse, another way of saying that there isn’t enough money to fund the school because they are believed to be too small and uneconomical. Schools, however, are not guided by the markets and should not be judged on a profit or loss basis.
The report also highlights other problems facing these schools: children are taught in mobile teaching units (caravans), and the backlog of maintenance works estimated to cost in the region of £500,000.
This is where we start to see inconsistencies in the report.
According to the Council’s figures Maes Hyfryd has 61 pupils but enough room for 73. The schools is projected to have 72 pupils by 2014, with only 1 ‘empty’ space. This is incorrect, because the figures also show that the mobile teaching unit has space enough for 18 pupils. But we know that they want to get rid of these mobile teaching units. The true figure for Maes Hyfryd is therefore currently 61 pupils being taught in room enough for only 55. It is also said that there will be 51 empty spaces at Ysgol Betws Gwerfil Goch by 2014, but if we subtract the mobile teaching unit the projection falls to 31. Why not spend the £3m allocated for the Edeirnion schools on the maintenance work, and build new permanent units at Maes Hyfryd and Bro Elwern (the two schools most likely to need more spaces)?
But the biggest weakness of the report is that it doesn’t even consider the possibility of creating a federation. The officers say that this has not been included because it doesn’t answer the problem of empty spaces. But as we’ve already seen empty spaces is a red herring, and what is needed is for the Council (and its officers) to show a bit more imagination in how to make the best possible use of these places. Instead of seeing them as a problem they should be looked at as an opportunity to bring something else to the community.
By creating a federation costs could be cut (after all revenue costs is the biggest financial burden) and it would also resolve the other big problem facing the Council which is that of the failure to appoint head teachers. This, if done with the agreement of the parents, pupils, teachers, and the wider community would ensure that the children continue to receive their education in the community while continuing to provide the best education for them
A group of people from the area have organised a public meeting tomorrow night (Tuesday 16 November) at the Sports Pavillion in Corwen at 7pm to discuss the proposals. I’ll be there and Council Officers have also been invited in order to ensure that everyone has the correct facts.
The officers have decided not to attend saying that they have orgainsed meetings at each of the schools under consideration as part of their consultation process. It’s a shame that they can’t be there. It will be an important meeting because these proposals will have an effect on the whole area and it’s important that everyone has a chance to listen and discuss. By organising individual meetings the Council will (intended or unintended) force each village to fight for themselves, and argue why they are more deserving than their brothers and sisters in the neighbouring village. Consultations shouldn’t be run this way. It shouldn’t be that the ones making the most noise gets the prize, this makes us nothing better than animals. Decisions should be made through cooperating and sharing ideas. It seems that Ysgol Caer Drewyn and Maes Hyfryd are both safe, and so the Council will already have succeeded in securing their compliance. But we must show unity with the other villages which will suffer as a consequence of these proposals. That’s why it’s important that as many people as possible attend the public meeting to support to their neighbours.
It is also possible to sign this petition as well.