Where Have All the Children Gone?
News that the Llandovery campus of Ysgol Bro Dinefwr comprehensive school, formerly Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn, will close in February 2016, prompts me to wander round the empty schools of rural Carmarthenshire.
The area has lost its children, a loss reflected in vacant school buildings.
In Llansawel in the Cothi Valley, the Mudiad Methrin nursery group has to vacate the empty school by the end of the summer term. The methrin group is now wondering how and where to relocate.
The main school building shows many signs of maintenance neglect, symptomatic of its marginal status during recent years.
Llansawel was, until 2011-12, to be the location of a new Dyffryn Cothi (Cothi Valley) school, but the plan was dropped in that year, as quietly as possible, because the education authority — Carmarthenshire County Council — reported “…recent events and a regular analysis of the situation means that the Authority has no choice but to revisit the options appraisal and proposed solution. It is very unlikely that the existing proposal in the Dyffryn Cothi area would stand up to the challenge and rigorous (sic) of the HM Treasury 5 Case Business Model, to attract the grant funding as required for all 21CS Band A projects. Regrettably the project is no longer educationally or financially viable”. (Modernising Education Programme Annual Report 2011-12, section 3 paragraph 3.9.) More of this later.
Caio School, about five miles to the east, closed its doors in September 2012.
Crugybar School, between Llansawel and Caio, was transferred to the community and is now serving a useful purpose as a village hall.
East of Caio, Cilycwm School has the sad aspect of a redundant building, asking “Where have all the children gone?” Cilycwm is, like Crugybar, Caio and Llansawel, a village without a shop or Post Office or anything much in the way of work opportunities.
The fate of village schools is one consequence of draconian planning restrictions in the ‘countryside’, which viewed through an urban prism is a memory of times past, of landscapes past, which are protected from change. Viewing the countryside as part of history rather than as integral to economic resilience means that public services like schools fall foul of the Treasury Five Case Model, which requires projects to be assessed against five sets of criteria — strategic, economic, commercial, financial and management. When little value is placed on the strategic, economic or financial worth of rural communities, protecting their schools is relegated to a trivial consideration.
The Welsh Government requires all projects under its 21st Century Schools (21CS) programme to pass the Five Case Model assessments. In fact Carmarthenshire did include its plans for a new Dyffryn Cothi school at Llansawel in the first wave — the Band A — of 21st Century Schools. It was project no.1 in a list of 12 with an estimated total cost of £86.7 million. But in a competition against the Five Case Model, the school was bound to lose.
The first criterion in the Five Case Model is ‘strategic’, and until this is recast to include the countryside as a source of resilience to future shocks, from which food and energy will have to come, public services will continue to fade away. Planning restrictions would have to be eased, too, so that homes within the financial reach of young people, and workplaces for businesses, can be sited in the villages and small towns which have become so sought-after by nostalgic pensioners. Either we make planning policies more flexible, or we have a countryside resembling an open-air retirement home, the children all long moved away.