Thursday, 21 February 2008

''Dim ysgol, dim cymuned'' – No School, No Community

When Rodney Berman, Leader of Cardiff Council brazenly announced the closure of 22 schools he could never have imagined that within the year popular protest from school students, teachers and parents would sink the LibDems flagship school “reorganisation” programme. The streets of Cardiff were filled with the biggest marches seen since the protests against the invasion of Iraq. The people won that battle but the war goes on with new attempts to close Cardiff schools.

But it is not only in Cardiff that schools are threatened with closure, North Wales has seen huge protests. The argument for school closures is phrased differently, but the closures are even more sinister, threatening to rip out the heart of rural communities. In Gwynedd, Plaid are attempting the biggest school closure programme in Wales. Some have tried to create spin from the fact that one or two of the schools have less than ten pupils, but this by no means typical of the schools being shut.

Bethan Wyn Evans is a teacher at Ysgol Bronyfooel, Y Fron, an old slate quarry community on the hills overlooking Caernarfon. She describes herself as “as not a very political person” but nevertheless was impelled by outrage at the effect school closures would have on rural communities to take a stand. Speaking to Adam Johannes from RESPECT, she eloquently demolished the arguments that small schools are a bad thing,

'Some schools in Gwynedd do have very small numbers of pupils' which she blames on rumours of closures, 'I assume that this pleases the council as they won't be blamed for the closure! - Our school has just short of 50 pupils. I teach 7-12 year old, there are 22 pupiles in my class. There is a high ratio of special ed needs, I feel stongly that they benefit from being with me for 4 years because I know their needs very well from year to year. These children would struggle in large schools and would fall behind and be 'ignored' within a big class situation. We have a special needs unit in the school - included in the 50 children'.

With many city schools failing our special needs children it is heartening to hear a village school is setting such a shining example, shamefully Welsh politicians are threatening this school with closure. But Bethan also believes that a fog has been created by the local council over figures and spending in order to push through their agenda, 'The figures and percentages of spending per head have been portrayed in a very unclear way. Our school seems to have a high amount of spending per head, when, in fact, part of the special needs teacher's wage comes into the total.' She notes children from the whole catchement area come to the special needs unit in the school, and suggests therefore that figures that include this in their spending are very misleading.

Extraordinarily the work of the special needs unit at the school has not been highlighted in any of the official papers or consultation around the closure, despite along waiting list of pupils to join it, this has led members of the Bronyfoel Action Group to accuse the Assembly and Council of discrimination against special needs children by preventing them from reaching their full potential. In selling the closures the council claimed that it would ‘reduce inequalities and promote equal opportunities for children’, but nowhere did they even consider how the proposals would effect children with special needs and disabilities.

Bethan also strongly defends the concept of small schools, 'As for education being better in bigger schools, I take this as a personal insult! Last month we had an OFSTED inspection, even though our school is under threat! We had an excellent inspection. We run a fruit shop, school council, our composting business, Urdd club, breakafst club......our children have all the experiences a child in a large school could have!'

But she also worries about the impact on the whole community if they lose the fight. Y Fron is like many old industrial areas,'rundown - empty and derelict houses, no shop, no pub, demolished Chapel, no village hall.' and identifies the school as 'the only lifeline in the village -The only place for a chat is outside the school, the only social activites, concerts, bingo, carboot... are held in the school. English speaking parents have learnt Welsh because of their children - why would they otherwise? Old people do not come to the Fron to live as it isn't very accessible to public ameneties. Young people come here as there is currently a shop here.'

Understandably she feels betrayed by politicians and worried for the future, 'What does the future hold? Alun Ffred AM said that ''Dim ysgol, dim cymuned'' (no school, no community) was only a slogan! He should take 5 minutes to come up to the Fron and see how fragile some poorer rural communities really are!'

The effects of Plaid's school closure programme are creating local and national ripples with big guns like Daffyd Iwan, the President of the party and Lord Daffyd Ellis Thomas berating those who oppose the closure as pie-in-the-sky middle class liberals with ‘no idea of how to operate in the constraints of a budget’, but there has also been high profile resignations from the local party and the announcement of a new party to contest the local elections. With our children’s education and futures under attack by cuts pushed by all four major parties there is a need to link all the different school campaigns across Wales against the closures. Closures are being justified by falling school numbers in some schools which has led the mainstream politicians to talk of 'surplus places'. But falling school numbers could be seen as a golden opportunity to achieve smaller class sizes.

Last month, 600 people marched in Cardiff to keep open one local primary school that is threatened with closure. It was an angry march led by working class parents, teachers and school kids. A popular slogan of the movement has been - “There are NO surplus places only smaller class sizes” - because, of course, educationalists are united in arguing that smaller class sizes are better for our children, all “surplus places” means is that class sizes will be smaller! In reality the politicians and their accountants are attempting a con-trick, an attempt to use bogus arguments to carry through a neoliberal cut, but what our children need is no more cuts in education but more investment and an education driven not by the needs of big business but creating rounded, fully developed human beings.

Local councils in Wales and the Assembly do face genuine problems with funding from Central Government, the unjust Barnett Formula needs to be replaced with funding that recognises Wales unique poverty and social deprivation. Unfortunately none of the mainstream parties have the stomach to fight for more funds preferring attacks on the very parents and teachers who voted for them. This is to be expected, a real fight for our children’s futures and our communities would demand a very different kind of politics involving trade unions, public meetings, demonstrations and the kind of mass struggles not seen in Wales since the defeat of the great miners strike.

In Gwynedd, the battle against school closures is also a fight to save rural Wales. Rural communities are being destroyed by the closure of village shops, schools and post offices, the absence of public transport and key services. Low pay, under-employment and deprivation for working families is now widespread with huge problems of poverty for small farmers and their low paid workplace

But for the wealthy and Welsh millionaires, with their large houses, holiday homes, leisure pursuits and four-wheel drives, the countryside will remain a playground. The polarisation between rural rich and rural poor is widening with the privatisation of bus services and the collapse of much of the rural economy.

Against the panorama of global politics, local residents opposing the closure of a small village school might seem a small matter, but it is precisely these numerous small battles across Wales to defend communities and their public services that will determine the world our children and grandchildren inherit.

Another Wales is Possible!

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