Spend less on schools, more on the rural economy

This item is also published on West Wales News Review 

Carmarthenshire’s ‘21st Century Schools’ programme is, stripped to essentials, a plan to replace small local schools with large new ‘hub’ schools. The impetus comes from the falling numbers of school pupils. The decade April 2001 to March 2011 saw 25 closures, mainly in rural areas, and a net fall of 1,873 school places in the county.[1]  The axe is poised to continue falling on under-subscribed schools.

Caio Primary School is set to close to pupils in July 2012. By the spring term 2012 only four pupils were enrolled. The catchment area contained more children than this, but their parents opted to send them elsewhere. The explanations are politically sensitive. Your reporter has been told that the exodus is increased by parents moving in from England who reject Welsh-language education.

Originally, the decision to maintain Welsh-medium primary schools in the rural areas of Wales made sense because the rural farming communities spoke Welsh, our priceless link with Celtic civilisation. That is no longer the case in the rural tracts of Carmarthenshire with which your reporter is familiar. The last four decades of in-migration, largely from England, have changed for ever the linguistic map. Farmers retiring from the land and without a successor, and farmers who converted outbuildings into homes, have ensured a plentiful supply of desirable real estate for buyers from outside. Welsh speakers remain, of course, and some incomers enthusiastically support Welsh-medium education, but by and large their numbers are not sufficiently large to keep Welsh-medium rural schools alive.

Carmarthenshire County Council’s plans include the replacement of four surviving primaries with an area school in Cynwyl Gaeo ward, and another area school in Cwm Tywi East. The Cynwyl Gaeo school, expected to be in Llansawel, would replace Caio, Brechfa ,Talley, and the current Llansawel school. A fifth school in the cluster, Rhydcymerau, has already shut. The new school for Cwm Tywi East would replace Llangadog, Llansadwrn and Llanwrda.

Language is such a fundamental expression of identity that its decline is cultural impoverishment, but efforts to force its preservation through compulsion in education will fail unless more is done to strengthen Welsh-speaking communities, and that means a different form of planning system in which tightly defined employment zones are rejected in favour of permissions for small and medium-sized enterprises to start and grow within rural areas, so that there are many more opportunities for people of working age to find jobs locally, instead of having to move away, generally to places where English is supreme.

A major handicap of ‘21st Century Schools’ is its lack of flexibility for the future. Once an expensive new school has been built, and the redundant old schools have been sold, it will be hard for the education authority to adjust to changing needs in the future. The ‘Strategic Outline Programme’ published by Carmarthenshire in October 2010 makes the point, at the end of a section on ‘benefits, risks, dependencies and constraints’,[2] that “lack of capacity to model an uncertain and fast changing future” is one of the main risks.

The flip side of the costly ‘21st century schools’ programme may emerge to be an even more expensive ‘rural revitalisation’ programme, to spur the local food and fuel production that will be required as water and energy shortages  make imports scarcer and much dearer. There is a case for less money to be allocated to school building, and for freed-up funds to be spent in re-firing the rural economy.


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