Over the years there have been a number of campaigns to save local village and community schools within Monmouth and Torfaen County Boroughs - some have been successful, some have not and some of the campaigns continue to this day. Now, while very few people, least of all the children and parents, would want to see a village or community school close, yet the closure programme across most of Wales continues from Gwent to Gwynedd and in between.
Much is made of cost savings, but, a closed or closing village or community school is more than just bricks and mortar and additions or subtractions to a cold clinical and balance sheet. One immediate effect is that aside from the damage done by the loss of the school to the local community, and immediate result is that parents or the county council end up in the businesses or providing transportation to and from more distant schools, especially in rural areas.
It is also worth remembering the fact that the communities affected end up losing yet another focus (often along with their Post Office and their Pub) as well as losing potential community facilities and almost no one ends up with smaller class sizes. MCC has blamed the Welsh Government for the budget settlement and the Welsh Government has said that it is a matter for MCC - none of which helps concerned parents, teachers and members of the communities affected.
Now while, I cannot comment on what’s going on outside of Monmouthshire, in the eyes of many people Monmouthshire County Council (MCC) is pursuing a policy of short term thinking when it comes to the closure of Primary Schools across the county. Certainly MCC needs fair funding and proper financial settlement from the Welsh Government, it's needs should be properly assessed, accounted and catered for the money pit as most people would agree is not bottomless.
Many local people (not just concerned parents) have real concerns about the small schools closure policy as it has been carried out in Monmouthshire where it is suspected of being driven by potentially questionable motives whether they be immediate short term financial gains from school closures and a more medium term motive of cashing in when it comes to disposing of the former school sites for simple short term commercial gain.
Over the last few years there have been a number of campaigns to save community and village schools, some have been successful in their fight like in Ponthir, at Llanfair Kilgeddin and in and around Abergavenny as well as elsewhere within the county of Monmouthshire, and elsewhere across Wales. Other campaigns across the county and across Wales, from north to south will continue despite some pretty tepid assurances from local County Councils.
This issue of retaining village and community schools is of particular importance; both MCC, other County Council’s across Wales and the Welsh Government needs to seriously think about again and take a much more mature longer term view, and should have the courage to take a fresh look at the way small community schools fit into our education system - the English model of education does not necessarily fit in Wales and the current Welsh version needs some serious thought.
While school rolls may fall in the short-term (in urban and rural areas), over the longer term population and school rolls will rise in the villages of Monmouthshire because people will (and do) want to live in these communities. The cost of building a brand new school will be significantly larger than improving an older school that may has been retained for educational, non educational and community use.
Elsewhere people do things differently, some governments take a much longer more community minded (and ultimately more economically sensible) view of education, while travelling in Asturias, in Spain, a few years ago I came across rural schools that were open with school rolls as low as 10 pupils, with shared teachers, support staff and shared administration.
We need to rethink the way we run our community and village schools, there is now reason why a head teacher could not be responsible for 4 or 5 smaller schools (this something that Church in Wales vicars have been doing for many years) across relatively wide rural area, modern technology can be used for shared administrative services and we could even end up with smaller class sizes, which would be a first.
Here in Wales we must not use the new austerity as an excuse for poor or lazy thinking, we need the courage and ambition to develop new ideas and new approaches as to how our small schools can continue to play a key role at the heart of our communities.