CAMPAIGNERS protesting against a raft of potential primary school closures in Powys say the local authority’s proposals are flawed but potentially even “illegal”.
David Edwards, who created the Save Our Community Schools (SOCS) Facebook group in the wake of Powys County Council’s (PCC) proposals announced at the beginning of the year, has likened the local authority to a “schools closure machine” that is “steamrolling through communities” throughout the county.
PCC is looking to reconfigure and rationalise the primary school provision in the county as part of its ‘Strategy for Transforming Education in Powys 2020-2030’ programme and has already begun or concluded consultations on shutting the doors at Castle Caereinion Church in Wales School near Llanfair Caereinion, Churchstoke County Primary School near Montgomery, Llanfihangel Rhydithon County Primary School in Dolau near Llandrindod Wells and Llanbedr Church in Wales School near Crickhowell. The future of Cradoc School and Mount Street Infants and Mount Street Juniors School in Brecon are also under discussion.
Mr Edwards and fellow campaigners established the SOCS group in March because of concerns over the futures of a plethora of other primary schools across Montgomeryshire – including Llanfechain and Llangedwyn Church in Wales School, Ysgol Pennant in Penybontfawr; Ysgol Bro Cynllaith in Llansilin; Llandysilio Church in Wales School; Carreghofa County Primary School in Llanymynech; Arddleen County Primary School and Ysgol Brynhafren in Crewgreen.
In a letter to new education minister Jeremy Miles, Mr Edwards has accused the council of rushing through their proposals and using the coronavirus pandemic as cover.
“My understanding of the situation in Powys, in a nutshell, is that there are too many primary schools in the county, with an overall declining population and that the authority must get its house in order or face special measures,” writes Mr Edwards.
“However, Estyn’s July 2019 report focuses primarily on 16/16+ education issues and certainly nowhere suggests that mass primary school closures are necessary.
“Powys’ reaction to this has been to create a schools closure machine aimed at steamrolling through communities, regardless of individual school performance, regardless of its own local development plan and regardless of its declared climate emergency statement. Worst of all, regardless of any detrimental impact on education.
“Added to this are the difficulties around proper consultation caused by the pandemic and which the authority appears to be trying to use to its advantage by, for example, refusing any form of public meeting with affected communities.”
Mr Edwards says he contacted Estyn, who told him all school reorganisation proposals are sent to them as part of the consultation process. Should Powys County Council proceed with their plan to reform education, they will provide a written response to the local authority outlining their views about the advantages and disadvantages of the proposal.
“I have replied to request further clarification or intervention into what is at best a flawed but potentially illegal proposal by Powys County Council,” he added.
“While we appreciate Powys has mismanaged education for 30+ years and must comply with Estyn’s findings, surely the authority’s current one-size-fits-all approach is completely wrong. Instead, it should be first considering individual school performance, staffing, pupil numbers, before putting a school on its hit list.
“Education has suffered immensely through the pandemic, now is not the time to be loading children and parents with yet more stress and anxiety.”
Mr Edwards claims statistics used by the council to lend weight to their plans are also misleading, outdated and incorrect. For example, they state Churchstoke’s surplus is 50 per cent, whereas the actual figure currently stands at 47 per cent, and is set to reduce to 27 per cent by September 2022 and 19 per cent by 2025.
The letter on behalf of the group, which currently has 630 members, has also been sent to Montgomeryshire MP Craig Williams and Senedd Member Russell George.
In response, PCC says it is looking to reconfigure and rationalise the primary school provision in the county as part of its plans.
Councillor Phyl Davies, cabinet member for education and property, said: “We are committed to transforming the learner experience and entitlement for our learners and we will achieve this by delivering our Strategy for Transforming Education in Powys 2020-2030.
“Our strategy is ambitious, exciting and we believe it will give our learners the best possible start they deserve. However, as we start to implement it, we will be faced with significant decisions as we look to address some of the challenges facing education in Powys which include the high proportion of small schools in the county, decreasing pupil numbers and the high number of surplus places.
“We have to ensure that the best interests of the learners are at the forefront of our discussions and decision-making.
“If a school is to close, then the learners will be attending schools that are better equipped to meet the requirements of the new national curriculum and can provide a wider range of educational and extra-curricular opportunities.
“However, it is important that the people of any school community as well as the wider areas affected have their say on proposals.”
In terms of the cluster of Montgomeryshire schools the SOCS group is supporting, the council confirmed in March that there are three phases in relation to carrying the transformation programme forward in the Llanfyllin/north Welshpool catchment area.
PCC’s cabinet on March 18 approved the commencement of closing Llangedwyn and Llanfechain schools from August 31, 2023, with pupils at both institutions to transfer to their nearest alternative schools. Phase one also includes increasing the capacity of Llansantffraid school by 90 places from September 1, 2023, following completion of the construction project there.
Phase two will include the development and consideration of options for Ysgol Bro Cynllaith, Ysgol Gynradd Pennant and Ysgol Gynradd Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant – it was expected this exercise will be concluded shortly after Easter 2021, though there is no news on this yet.
Phase three will incorporate the development and consideration of options for Llandysilio, Carreghofa, Arddleen and Brynhafren, which is expected to be undertaken in the autumn of 2021.
The council says options for schools identified in phases two and three will be presented to cabinet once they have been developed.
Anyone who wants to support the campaign can add their name and/or comment on the SOCS Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/933927670770381 or email Mr Edwards at firstname.lastname@example.org.