Paul Davies: Safeguarding local education in Wales

Speech by Shadow Education Minister Paul Davies AM to the National Assembly for Wales: "It gives me great pleasure to propose the motion tabled in the name of Alun Cairns on behalf of the Welsh Conservatives.

We have tabled this debate because concerns around school reorganisation are raised with me as the education spokesperson for the Welsh Conservatives, and with other Members, on a regular basis.

Parents across Wales are becoming increasingly concerned about the way that school reorganisations are being handled. I know that we were told by the previous First Minister last year that 170 schools across Wales need to close in order to tackle surplus school places.

I accept that there are thousands of surplus places in schools across Wales, and I am not arguing that all schools must remain open. The subject of school closures is an extremely sensitive issue, and I know that it concerns every Member.

In most cases, schools not only provide education for our children, but are true community centres. For example, where a village does not have a hall, the school is used for social activities. Schools are at the heart of our communities, particularly in rural areas.

They are a valuable community resource, especially where public services, such as post offices and libraries, have been removed. Closing a small rural school, particularly in a Welsh-speaking area, is like ripping the heart out of that community.

Therefore, it is crucial that any decisions to close schools be taken on the basis of not only education, but their impact on the culture and language of the communities.

That is why robust community impact assessments must be undertaken in all cases in which schools are earmarked for closure. The Welsh Assembly Government has issued guidance to local authorities stating that they will need to consider

‘the impact that proposals may have on local families and the local community, through the preparation of a community impact assessment’.

However, that is not statutory. After all, it is only guidance. It goes on to say that it

‘sets out the policy context and general principles, policies and issues which have a bearing on reviewing the provision of school places’.

Some of the schools earmarked for closure across Wales provide high-quality education, which is borne out by Estyn reports. Take some of the schools in Powys for example.

These are some of the best performing schools in the country, yet many are faced with potential closure. Closing good schools must surely be avoided at every opportunity.

No school that is able to deliver the national curriculum should be forced to close without the agreement of parents, teachers and governors. Where a school is earmarked for closure, it is essential that robust consultation processes be put in place and that education authorities listen to the voice of the communities that they serve.

A good education opens the door to life opportunities. Not only does a good school teach children reading, writing and arithmetic, but it inspires young people to learn, to follow their interests, and to become responsible adults. I accept that school rolls must be considered in funding each school, but the most important factor is the effect of the closure on the wider community.

Closing a school can mean that children have to travel to access their education. That has an environmental impact, as parents and education authorities run more vehicles.

Before closing a school, consideration must be given to planning applications in the area. Time after time, I am told that schools are earmarked for closure with no regard for planned housing developments, which could improve their viability.

Closing a school can also have a huge impact on a community’s local economy. For example, pupils attending secondary schools can double the size of a town’s population, in many cases.

Many pupils use the town’s facilities before and after school, and during lunch times, boosting the economy. Those pupils will bring their parents with them, when calling for or dropping off their children at school, and parents will also use the town’s amenities.

There would therefore be a significant economic impact on communities in which schools are to close. That is why we must look at all the alternatives before a school is finally closed.

School buildings can be used to house libraries, re-establish post offices, host community meetings, concerts and other community purposes. Most school buildings are redundant after 3.30 p.m. Monday to Friday, and are closed for the weekends and the holidays.

We must look at innovative ways of making schools more viable if a particular school is seen to be unviable by the authorities. For example, in some cases, some schools have spare rooms that could be leased or rented to local businesses, thereby making that school more viable. All these options should be considered before closing the doors of a school for the last time.

I also believe that federation can be an important element in avoiding the closure of some of our schools. By working in federation, there is mutual support for the teaching staff, and individual expertise can be developed across a number of schools, spreading the bureaucratic burden.

The federation of schools can allow for the employment of certain staff who can perform all the administrative functions of a number of schools across the area, thereby making individual schools more viable.

I believe that community partnerships should be formed when a local education authority announces its intention to close a school. Such partnerships could include community councils, local businesses, in addition to parent and teacher groups.

It is crucial that the entire community be given the right to consult, given that a school closure can impact on a community for many years to come. That is what local democracy means—everyone participating so that the entire community supports the decisions that affect it.

We have seen difficulties in some parts of the country because the local authority has failed to take on board the views of the community. I am pleased that the Minister last week acknowledged that the school reorganisation process is inadequate.

Perhaps he could tell us in his response what he now intends to do about it. The Liberal Democrats’ amendments 2 and 3 seek to highlight that issue, and, for that reason, we will be supporting them.

Councils must consider carefully the impact that any decision to close a school will have on a community, particularly in Welsh-speaking areas. It is not merely a matter of closing a school, as a far more serious issue is allied to this, namely the effect on culture and the wider population.

There is evidence to suggest that a community is weakened when a school closes. In some areas, there is always a danger that the post office and local shop will close because of the economic impact that closing a school will have. Before a school in any community closes, each and every sensible option must be looked into.

The message that we must convey today should be absolutely clear: schools are not just places in which our children are taught; they play an important role in our communities. We have a responsibility to ensure that we protect those communities. I urge Members to support our motion.”