SMALL school closures is an agenda, which is running rampant at the meetings of local authorities across Wales. Over 200 schools have been closed in Wales with many more on the hit list.
The impact of the proposals to close or merge schools campaigners claim, is hard on communities at a time when most are struggling to cope in a lockdown situation.
Local authorities are ploughing ahead with consultations despite requests from parents to halt the process until life gets back to some form of normality. Some are claiming that theirs and their children’s mental health and wellbeing is being compromised. Some have told us that they are dealing with looking after loved ones who have Covid-19. Some are struggling under the pressure of home schooling. Others have said that they just cannot find time to attend online meetings when juggling busy working lives and looking after children. Many are members of the key worker services such as the NHS, the armed forces and the emergency services.
Every region of Wales is seeing the same pattern of small schools closing with campaigners who are trying to save them alleging that the buildings are either being sold off to developers for profit or offered for sale to people with close links to councillors.
Campaigners claim that some small schools, which were deemed ‘not fit for purpose’ for education, were subsequently turned into lucrative childcare facility businesses with grants from the same local authorities, which closed the buildings.
Some of the schools were demolished and the land used for new housing developments. It is unclear where the money from those deals went.
The questions some are asking are; Why the people that are elected to represent their communities have allowed this to happen and why is profit being placed before community?
As a media outlet we have been overwhelmed by emails from people who are at the end of their tether over consultations on school closures. It is the same story in every region of Wales.
One campaigner Peter Edwards whose children attend Mynydd-y-Garreg School said: “The First Minister has asked the people of Wales to make sacrifices during the pandemic and now a substantial chunk of that population are asking the First Minister to intervene and halt the consultation process until life gets back to some form of normality. “
Council’s are citing Welsh Government Policy and guidelines enabling them to continue the consultation process.
Mr Edwards said: “We have seen how rules and policies can be changed during the pandemic, why not for this very important issue for families?”
During a recent council meeting in Carmarthenshire some councillors abstained from voting on the issue of school closures including former labour councillor and mayor of Llanelli Jeff Edmunds, now an independent councillor
Cllr Jeanette Gilasbey who represents the Mynydd-y-Garreg ward where the local school is threatened with closure citied a conflict of interest because a family member worked at another school in the county.
We contacted Cllr Gilasbey to ask why she had not voted during the meeting.
Cllr Gilasbey said: “As a councillor, I’m bound by the Code of Conduct which insists that everything we do and say sets the highest stands of behaviour in public office. As a journalist, you’ll know this of course, but others may not fully understand how careful we’re expected to be by law.
“Due to my concern about a possible conflict of interest, I conferred with the Head of the Council’s Legal Department, who’s also the Monitoring Officer responsible for ensuring that councillors and officers alike must maintain the highest standards.
“On her advice, I declared that I had a personnel and prejudicial interest on this agenda item as I have a family member who is a teacher in one of the schools who may be impacted by any changes as a result of the consultation. I’d been granted dispensation by the Standards Committee to speak but not to vote. After receiving further legal advice, I was allowed to remain in the meeting whilst the matter was discussed, but had to leave the virtual meeting when the vote was taking place.
“During the consultation period, I’m advising the community on means of making their opinions known to the Education Department. The Welsh Government has commended the council for organizing virtual drop-in sessions and is ready to respond by phone to any inquiries or comments.
“I hope this helps make my position clear.”
Sarah Davies a member of the group campaigning to save Mynydd-y-Garreg School said: “How can the councillors realistically represent their community on such an important issue by abstaining or being told not to vote for legal reasons? They are there to represent us not a family member who happens to work at a school.”
“We will be asking the First Minister look at this item and consider reforming the rules around the way in which councillors can be allowed to vote on such important matters? “
The party politics is unavoidable at local authorities and the closures in Carmarthenshire have become a conkers contest between Plaid Cymru and Labour. One councillor claimed that personal hatreds held between councillors also affected the way in which people voted.
Dorian Reeve another campaigner hoping to keep Ysgol Mynydd-y-Garreg open said: “What we have here are individuals elected by the people of their community either abstaining or voting for an item by party political allegiance or personal dislike for the proposer. In some cases the people who voted those councillors in as a representative of their political party have seen those same councillors leave the party but remain in office as independent councillors with deep divisive issues fuelling their decision making processes. It really is a seedy and wholly unaccountable system of governance, which needs total reform.”
In Powys the row over whether to keep Llanbedr Church in Wales (CIW) primary school open continued. At a meeting of the Powys County Council (PCC) Cabinet on Tuesday, February 9, local county councillor John Morris, slammed the proposal to close it.
He believed that it showed an “uncaring” approach from the cabinet and council towards its people and children for going ahead with the process during a pandemic.
Cllr Morris (Crickhowell – Liberal Democrat) said: “Myself and the whole community were quite shocked by the decision to progress this at a time when we are in lockdown, and the whole community are exhausted from the effects of Covid.
“I have spoken to a great number of people from within the community, and they are extremely angry at what they perceive as an uncaring attitude by the Cabinet and senior officers in bringing this forward at this time.”
He read out a letter from a school governor, who said: “The current action of the local authority is imposing an additional burden of worry and uncertainty and trauma for children who have already been through so much.”
“The psychological effects of the pandemic on youngsters could not be fully understood yet.
“Therefore it does not seem to be an appropriate time for a responsible local authority to take action which risks imposing further damage on some of the most vulnerable in our community.”
Over 200 schools have shut across Wales. In 2018 the Welsh Government new School Organisation Code, came into force in November 2018. The code aims to ensure councils and other proposers do everything they can to keep a school open before deciding to consult on closure.
In Carmarthenshire Cllr Glynog Davies, the Executive Board Member for Education, said that the council was complying fully with Labour Welsh Government guidelines. Indeed, he said, the government had complimented the council for arranging virtual drop-in sessions and engaging in telephone inquiries. Pointing to the success of the consultation channels, he stated that there had been 40,000 responses to council consultations of all kinds since the pandemic started, compared to just 11,000 the previous year. Cllr Davies urged parents and others to make full use of these channels of communication during the remaining fortnight of the schools consultation period.
Welsh language campaigners and singer Non Parry have also lent their support to keep the schools open. Ffred Ffransis of Cymdeithas ir Iaith said that it did not make sense to close a Welsh Medium primary school in the village when trying to encourage the learning of the Welsh language.
In Mynydd-y-Garreg the message was clear. “There will be a backlash for Plaid Cymru” said Rebecca Williams, a lifelong party member.