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Schools could shut in Aeron Valley

CILCENNINA KEY COUNCIL committee is to consider proposals which could mean the closure of four schools in the Aeron Valley and the creation of a new school in Felinfach as their replacement.

ON MONDAY (May 9), Ceredigion County Council’s Learning Oversight and Scrutiny Committee will consider a report from Barry Rees, the Council’s director in charge of learning and partnerships relating to educational provision in the Aberaeron area.

The Aberaeron district is the second district to be reviewed under the Policy, following the review of the Aberystwyth area.

The Aberaeron district includes 10 Primary Schools of varying sizes which feed Aberaeron Comprehensive School. Some of the primary schools in the Aberaeron district border other school districts. That means that some of the pupils in the Aberaeron school family, attend Secondary schools outside the area.

The report notes that the Aberaeron district can be broken into two parts:

(a). Aeron Valley Schools to the east of the town of Aberaeron: Cilcennin, Ciliau Parc, Dihewyd and Felinfach Primary Schools and

(b). Coastal Schools / on the A487 highway to the north and South of the town of Aberaeron: Aberaeron, Llanarth, Llanon, New Quay, Talgarreg and Bro Sion Cwilt Primary Schools.

It is the schools identified in the first of those parts which appear likely to be subject of reorganisation and closures.

One of their number, Ysgol Dihewyd, only narrowly escaped closure in 2014. At the time a Council spokesperson said that the transfer of pupils from an neighbouring school in Trefilan: “would ensure that pupil numbers at Dihewyd have increased sufficiently for the school to remain above the threshold figure for the foreseeable future.”

SURPLUS PLACES

One of the key issues that will need to be considered is the Welsh Government’s policy on eliminating surplus school places.

According to Welsh Government figures from 2014, there are nearly 100,000 surplus school places across Wales. In the three years up to 2014, 123 schools in Wales closed, most of them small schools in rural areas. T h e cost of maintaining surplus places is difficult to assess.

While Estyn claims that ‘in the primary sector in Wales in 2011-2012, the average cost of a surplus place was £260’. Estyn also suggests that closing a primary school yields potential savings of £63,500 plus £260 for each surplus place removed.

However, those calculations do not take into account the cost to a community – especially a small rural one – of losing its school. In most small villages with a school, the school building is the only civic building of any size.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Wales has also observed that surplus places are not necessarily either spare or inappropriate.

Saying that considering schools’ future purely on the number of places: ‘would have a huge impact on rural schools where often it’s a case there are less than a dozen pupils and perhaps schools are kept open with very few pupils knowing that there will be a blip in uptake in several years’ time’.

Notwithstanding those observations and concerns expressed by Estyn about the poor quality of data on surplus school places, the Welsh Government imposed quotas on councils to reduce surplus places with funding penalties for non-compliance.

The Schools figures for the Aberaeron district seem to suggest that there is a significant number of surplus places at both Llanarth and Cilcennin schools.

Llanarth has a capacity of 84 pupils, but is projected to have only three quarters of those places filled each academic year through to 2021. At Cilcennin, a capacity of 52 student places, there is a projection that barely 40% of available spaces will be filled by 2021.

THE CHOICE

There are four possible options outlined in the report before the scrutiny committee.

Option 1: continue with the current situation of 10 schools within the Aberaeron district

Option 2: Close Cilcennin School (which has the lowest number of pupils and the highest percentage of surplus places)

Option 3: Establish a new area school in the Aeron Valley located on the Professional Education Centre campus, Felinfach (for the pupils of Ciliau Parc, Cilcennin, Dihewyd and Felinfach)

Option 4: Build a new area school on a central site within the Aeron Valley (for the pupils of Ciliau Parc, Cilcennin, Dihewyd and Felinfach)

The strengths and weaknesses of each of those proposals are summarised in the report before the scrutiny committee. While that document is careful not to rule out or rule in any of those options, it is clear that the status quo is not a recommendation likely to be advanced, while no capital provision has been made within the Council budget for option four.

From the list of advantages set out for option three, it would be hard not to conclude that it will emerge as the favoured option – a l t h o u g h there will be significant logistical issues to resolve with co-location of a school new Theatr Felinfach.

NO DECISION YET

A spokesperson for the County Council told The Herald: “No decisions on the future of educational provision in the Aberaeron area have yet been made.

“However, in accordance with Ceredigion’s School Review Policy, a review was recently carried out on provision in the Aberaeron area. The outcomes of the review will be discussed by Ceredigion’s Learning Communities Scrutiny Committee on Monday 9th May.

“The formation of an area school to replace four primary schools in the Dyffryn Aeron area is included as one of the possible outcomes of the review. Feedback from the Scrutiny Committee will be discussed by Ceredigion Cabinet on 17 May.

“Depending on the outcome of Cabinet discussions, they may ask the School Review Panel to consider one or more of the proposals of the area review. In Ceredigion, the final decision on any school closure is made by the full Council after a full consultation process.”

The details of the report and the agenda for Monday’s meeting are on the Ceredigion Council website www. ceredigion.gov.uk – following the pathway: resident, council committees and meetings, Scrutiny, Learning Communities and then select date 9.05.16.

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Jon Coles

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