More than just education factories –

Here’s an article i wrote for the Wales Home website. Thanks to the WalesHome team for editing and publishing. Diolch. 

More than just education factories

Schools are the beating hearts of local communities – and it is communities that should decide their fate

HOW do you close a school? When should you close a school? Who should decide? And what should be the basis for making those decisions?

These questions have vexed local authorities over recent years with closure processes being long and drawn out, judicial reviews challenging the legitimacy of an authority’s closure programme, and many an angry exchange heard in council chambers across Wales.

But why has it come to this?

It seems that local authorities start from the financial argument, and work from there.

We can understand why this is the case – to a degree. After all the majority of a local authority’s expenditure is on education. But it’s the wrong way to look at things. If we look at education through the prism of economics, then it becomes nothing more than an economic equation, with the bottom line becoming the most important aspect. Lack of money is a problem, therefore small schools and their associated costs become a problem.

Of course, local authorities and supporters of school closure programmes will dress this up as a concern for children’s education, and question why some schools should receive more money than others. That’s a valid point, and the cost of running a school must surely be a consideration. But it shouldn’t be the driving factor behind decision making.

Under the current funding regime with school funding following a seemingly arbitrary equation of spend per pupil, our children have become nothing more than a commodity or a form of currency. A child moving from one school to another can have an impact on the education of other pupils. That can’t be right.

Much like the current debate surrounding the funding of Wales and the Barnett Formula, so we must also consider school funding on a needs-based formula. Those needs should include community needs as well as strict educational needs.

However, community needs are marginalised in the discussions surrounding schools with councils failing to value the wider community role that a school provides. While a school is an educational facility in the eyes of the local authority, it is a community resource to those living nearby. Nowhere is this more true than with rural community schools.

When meeting at the school gates, parents discuss everything from Coronation Street to the village carnival, and inform each other of community activities and goings-on. The children play in the village and go in and out of each others houses. School eisteddfodau, sports days and other school activities bring the community together – it is a glue that binds the community together. Take that away and what have you got? More often than not we have satellites for a nearby town, a commuter village, with people not knowing who their next door neighbour is, let alone who lives down the street.

The sense of community is lost. The population gets older with young families preferring to settle in another village with a school, or a town. Extra curricular activities are held outside of the village. All of which eventually lead to the slow death of the community.

Ironically we’ve seen councils starting to pump money into moribund communities in recent years in an attempt to revitalise them at a considerable cost. So it seems that closing of community schools has a direct negative impact on the local economy and community cohesion, as well upon as the education of the children.

Local authorities have become so rigidly departmentalised that they no longer reflect the communities that they are supposed to represent, and have instead become tools of a neo-imperial state, handing down rules from above with too-powerful officers, at the expense of true local democracy. Yet a council is meant to be there to serve – not dictate.

We should start with the principle that these decisions should be made by the community. Instead of looking at these schools as a problem, they should be looked at as a resource that can be used in many different ways.

Take the case of Ysgol y Parc near Bala as an example. Gwynedd Council has ignored the views of the local community and imposed a decision on it from the outside, even though Estyn gave the school a glowing report in 2007.

Arguments have been raging for years about Ysgol y Parc’s viability. Originally it was said that it was too costly until Leighton Andrews said that cost should not be the deciding factor behind school closures, and that decisions should instead be based on educational standards.

The argument then changed, with the local authority claiming that the school is too small, with pupils at Ysgol y Parc receiving sub-standard education because there are too few pupils there to provide a decent educational experience – again, in direct contradiction to what Estyn inspectors found.

But it should be the community’s decision. This is what happened in Ceredigion when parents and governors of Llanllwchaearn, Gwenlli, and Caerwedros schools near Llandysul proposed to close those schools and form a larger area school, Ysgol Gymunedol Bro Sion Cwilt. Supporters of school closures will often refer to this as a successful example of developing area schools. But what they forget is that it was a decision that came from the communities.

A personal favourite argument put forward as a reason to close Ysgol y Parc and others is that of surplus spaces. A classic Orwellian argument. On the one hand we hear that the ratio of teachers per pupil is too low and that pupils are taught in cramped classes, yet when we have schools with the perfect ratio of teachers per pupil and fortunate enough to have plenty of room in which to learn, it is considered that they have surplus spaces and therefore should close. This argument is the clearest case of departmentalised thinking and failing to look at how these resources can be used for other government agencies alongside its education usage.

Others will endeavour to compare communities saying that Cwmtirmynach, for instance, a small rural village in Meirionnydd, is thriving without a primary school, which is true. But that only serves to emphasise the point that each community is unique, and has its own needs and ways of functioning.

This has all come about because of our insistence on looking at things back-to-front. This process started with the education department and filtered out. Ysgol y Parc isn’t a branch of the education department. It is the beating heart of the local community.

It wouldn’t have come to this if Gwynedd Council had started with the communities, and held a genuine consultation with each community in turn about their aspirations and needs and how these could be met.

What value do we place on our communities? Are schools simply education factories designed to increase the future production value of our children? Or are they community resources in place to help educate our children not just for work purposes but also for life, to appreciate the community and all of its neighbourly and cooperative values?

As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Such is the case with Ysgol y Parc.

(Readers are welcomed to comment on it here, but I suggest that comments be posted on the Wales Home site.)