14-19 Curriculum Threat to Rural Schools

Yes, a new curriculum in Wales for students aged 14 to 19, with wider choices and vocational options, is a good idea. No one wants a school full of bored, disaffected teenagers, whose lack of qualifications narrows their life choices.

Unfortunately this new curriculum, requiring 14-year-olds to have a choice of at least five vocational diplomas from a list of 14, is being introduced when the UK government has run out of money to fund the changes – and the costs in rural areas without a public transport infrastructure will be horrendous.

Small secondary schools do not have the resources to offer all these courses. In my part of rural Carmarthenshire the county council, responsible for education, wants to close two secondary schools and replace them with one super school, to be funded (they hope) by the Welsh Assembly Government.

The proposed super school would be built on the flood plain of a river that often floods, and which is (according to environmental adviser Tony Jukes) likely to change course towards the new campus. The two closed schools would have to be used (as what??) or demolished, otherwise they would become health hazards and eyesores. Lots of money has been spent on both schools in recent years, all wasted if the buildings are knocked down.

Let’s think of the students. The new site is close to the larger of the redundant schools, but over 12 miles from the smaller, with road access through the congested, narrow main street of a small town, a street that is a notorious bottleneck. The smaller school, serving a hilly, sparsely populated area, has a large catchment area of its own, extending for up to 10 miles or so, so that many pupils would have one-way journeys of 20 miles or more, on winding country roads, to the so-called super school. There is no public transport over most of this area, so pupils would have to rely on special school buses. How sustainable is that, when we are trying to reduce carbon emissions and face declining oil supplies?

What would happen in winter when roads are impassable due to snow and ice?  When floods close the roads? When pupils want to stay for after-school activities but can’t, because there is no bus and they can’t walk all those miles home? What about behaviour on the buses? Children on school buses for hours every day will be bored and sometimes rowdy. Will two or three hours daily on a bus be a beneficial use of their time? I think not.

There are other options. Shropshire, also a rural county, over the border in England —  where similar 14-19 reforms are in progress —  is adopting distance learning technologies to enable small schools to stay open. In my area, distance learning, peripatetic teachers, practical education aided by local small and medium sized businesses, and collaboration with a nearby and well-equipped independent school, could together ensure rich educational opportunities for the area’s children. However, it will take a huge community effort to prevent the council from wasting millions of pounds on a new white elephant, a super school on the flood plain of a capricious river.

Protest annoys the council, but as Thomas Jefferson, third president of the USA, pointed out so memorably: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”.

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