Pupils across Wales are set to benefit from a new £2.5m grant to support small and rural schools. But will it make a difference? Nanna Ryder investigates…

Once more this week, one of the main headlines in the weekly local newspaper, the ‘Cambrian News’, refers to the closure of small schools in Ceredigion. During the last 15 months, seven primary schools and one secondary school within a 10 mile catchment area in the south of the county have shut their doors.

Three of these small schools were merged in order to form one completely new area primary school at a central site, while the remainder were merged to form a brand new 3-19 school situated in a bespoke building. Furthermore, the latest news is that at least another eight schools within the same catchment area of some 20 miles are again under threat.

This is a familiar pattern, not only in rural Ceredigion, but throughout the rural communities of Wales, despite protestations from parents, families and members of the community.

County councils are doing their utmost to justify this by claiming that larger schools provide better resources, better learning opportunities and a higher standard of education for pupils in the twenty-first century.

Of those schools listed above, most received ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ grades based on their current performance and their prospects for improvement in their final Estyn inspections. Also, not one of them was in the red band of the traffic lights system used for banding schools.

Research, both in this country and internationally, has proven that there is no difference between the achievements of pupils attending small schools, compared with those attending large schools, and in some cases, pupils who receive their education in small schools excel.

Existing research, personal experience as a former parent and former member of staff, and also as a tutor to students on teaching experience in schools in the area, all indicate that some aspects are considerably stronger in smaller schools.

This may include parental commitment, extra-curricular opportunities, mastery of the Welsh language (especially in the case of newcomers) and the concept of belonging to ‘one family’ within a school community. Consequently, one must ask whether in these cases closure is at the expense of educational standards and experiences or based on saving the council’s money.

One must also take into account whether due consideration is given to the voice, welfare and holistic development of the children and young people in coming to these key decisions concerning their future education. Inevitably, the number of pupils in classes and the adult-child ratio is much greater in large schools.

As a result, it is difficult to give each individual personal attention so as to ensure their welfare and holistic development. Loading pupils into buses before the break of dawn and

transporting them out of their local communities to be educated can have a harmful effect on their personal identity and the idea of belonging to a community.

You could argue that this is contrary to the requirements of Donaldson’s transformative curriculum, since one of the four purposes is to ‘develop ethical, informed citizens … knowledgeable about …their community [and their] society’.

By compelling future generations to move from their immediate community to be educated elsewhere is possibly depriving them of a wealth of experiences that are on their own doorstep.

In some regions, with the closure of local shops and a decline in the number that attend chapels and churches, the school is frequently the only place for local residents to meet. Even so, with the reduction in the number of pupils attending and the challenge of finding headteachers, together with the lack of financial support from local councils, frequently, the only option left for smaller schools is closure.

As a result, shutting the school doors can also lead to the ‘death’ of the communities themselves. This is a familiar story, and a norm here in Wales for the last 25 years.

But, recently, there has been a change, and we have seen a U-turn in Welsh Government education policy, with the Cabinet Secretary for Education launching a grant of £2.5m to support small, rural schools in order to ‘…deal with the unique challenges they face… [and] help schools work together for the benefit of pupils, teachers, and the wider community’.

This was further reinforced in the policy document ‘Education in Wales: Our National Mission’, which recommends that every possible option should be considered, including federalisation, before closing small or rural schools. Therefore, is there light at the end of the tunnel for small schools – or has this U-turn come a decade or more too late?

Buildings have been disposed of, communities disintegrated, and it is difficult to believe we can turn the clock back. Remember the proverb ‘it’s too late to shut the stable door…’ and is it really too late, perhaps, for our small rural schools here in Wales today?

  • Nanna Ryder is a senior lecturer (Additional Learning Needs) at Yr Athrofa, University of Wales Trinity Saint David