Leighton Andrews Proves the Point: Time to Seek Creative Options to School Closures
by Pat Dodd Racher
My assumption that the Welsh Government’s ex-education minister Leighton Andrews (Labour, Rhondda) really believed in his policy to close under-occupied schools appears to have been mistaken. The photos of Mr Andrews holding a placard reading ‘Save Pentre Primary and The Community’ reveal that he is well aware of the damage to any community when its school closes.
Mr Andrews has resigned. Unlike Janus, he did not have the power to face different directions at the same time and ignore the consequences. It was his policy to close schools, in a bid to cut the numbers of spare places, but it was also a policy that, evidently, he felt he could not support in his own constituency, because of the ensuing damage to the community. He would also have risked a blow to his own chances of being re-elected to represent the Labour Party.
This prompts the question, are there alternatives to completely shutting schools?
What about creative site sharing, such as leasing part of school premises to small businesses, for example, or to voluntary organisations? At the same time, small schools could be linked, more cost-effectively, in multi-campus federations. There must be less drastic approaches to the problem than the fatal wielding of an axe. After all, who knows when demand for school places will rise again?
The bulldozing through, against the wishes of the vast majority of the community, the impending closure of Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn in Llandovery, creates a ‘dead zone’ within its catchment area of over 100 square miles. Closure also results in a 40-mile stretch of mid Wales between the comprehensive schools at Builth Wells, Powys and Ffairfach, Carmarthenshire, without any state education for children from the age of 11. Closure weakens Llandovery economically and thus its capacity to provide all the services required in its large hinterland, and closure also weakens the Welsh language. In large centralised schools, like the one intended for Ffairfach to replace both Pantycelyn and Llandeilo’s Tregib, the dominant language, English, dominates even more.
There would have been – indeed, still are – other responses to the issue of spare school places apart from complete closure, but there was no real consultation about different possibilities. Shiny and very expensive new ‘super schools’ like that intended for Ffairfach are too extravagant for the cash-strapped age in which we live, especially as so many families would rather retain the current arrangements. Even if the Welsh Government pays much of the up-front cost, to us this is no different from the county council meeting the cost – in the end it is us as taxpayers who pick up the bill.
The quality of education depends not on the physical environment of buildings but on the mental environment created by teachers, students, parents, and the community. When a school appears to be costing too much, which I believe happened in the case of Pantycelyn, let the community decide how to increase the income, or reduce the costs. If we had a real participatory democracy like this, rather than a heavily flawed ‘representative’ version, the impact on community cohesion could be startling!