The Erasure of Rural Wales Edges Closer
by Pat Dodd Racher
Llansawel Show was yesterday. Sheep, poultry, ponies, giant vegetables, odd vegetables, flowers, jams, cookery, arts and crafts. Lots of entries from children at Llansawel School. Burgers (local), beer (from local pub), ice cream (local). The weather was kind, all in all a very pleasant afternoon. Most people, certainly most older people, were chatting and conducting the business of the day in Welsh.
One field to the east is Llansawel School. The word around the village is that the school will close in 2016, and under-11s will be bussed to Cwmann on the outskirts of Lampeter, between 12 and 13 miles from Llansawel village along twisty roads. The AA calculates that the journey is just on half an hour, without any stops. Add in the numerous stops made by school buses…. You get the picture.
True, Llansawel School received an indifferent inspection report from Estyn this summer. The less-than-complimentary word “adequate” is scattered through the report like faded confetti. There were 15 full-time and five part-time pupils in May, in a school that can accommodate 60, and the cost for each was £9,297. Only two primary schools in the county had a higher cost per pupil, said Estyn’s report.
Llansawel village, the surrounding farms, the heart of the Welsh countryside – you would expect several pupils to come from Welsh speaking families, would you not? I was staggered to read that only 5% of pupils speak Welsh at home. Five per cent of 20 is exactly ONE. One pupil, in a rural Carmarthenshire Welsh-medium school, whose family speak Welsh. Many more than this, 40%, have additional learning needs and 35% are entitled to free school meals, the latter statistic indicating serious disadvantage. Another salient factor is, in Estyn’s words, “since 2010 a high percentage of latecomers have joined the school, particularly in Key Stage 2 (ages 7-11)”. This context suggests to me that the term “adequate” stems more from declines in community cohesiveness, linguistic capability and economic prosperity in the catchment area, than from any lack of educational ambition within the school.
What do we have here? A supposedly Welsh-medium primary school where children have to learn Welsh as an additional language and who do not use the language outside school. Children coming and going as their families move from one short-term rented home to another. There are empty houses in Llansawel, into which newcomers move for a time, but there is no work for incomers and no public transport for commuting.
Current policy is to close schools down as numbers dwindle. Kevin Madge (Labour), the leader of Carmarthenshire County Council, is quoted thus in last week’s (September 11) Carmarthen Journal, referring to the impending closure of Llanfynydd Primary School, further down the Cothi valley: “Again on this occasion these schools are closing themselves…… We cannot sustain a school with 10 or 11 pupils” (my emphasis).
I have never seen a school close itself. People open and close schools, Mr Madge. Closing rural schools as an automatic reaction to falling rolls reflects an absence of rural policy when we have never been in greater need of revitalising our country districts.
State secondary education is being withdrawn from Llandovery, 12 miles to the east of Llansawel, enforcing long and tiring daily journeys on children as young as 11. Most of the village primary schools have already gone. There is a vicious cycle of decline, the domino effect of services disappearing, the jobs they offered vanishing, and people of working age departing, if they can. There are few children on farms, because nearly two in every three farmers in Wales are aged 55 and over and thus mainly in the grandparent generation, according to the BBC. In any case, there is often insufficient income for multi-generational farms.
That will change as we crash into the global limits of food, water and fuel supply. Then our countryside will be appreciated for the precious resource it is, local food production will race up the political agenda, and the amenities that have been destroyed will have to be recreated. Wouldn’t it be more constructive, over the long term, to protect the few remaining rural schools and in that way to slow the closure of pubs, post offices, shops and other communal meeting places? Otherwise the thread of tradition will be broken, local knowledge and language will wither away, and the impact of that loss could be far more serious than the powers-that-be yet realise.
Back in Llansawel, without the involvement of children in the school, Llansawel Show itself would have fewer entries and fewer visitors. It could, in time, become yet another falling domino.