Speaking to the Education and Lifelong Learning (ELL) Committee where she presented her paper on rural and small schools the minister said:
'The rate of closures and amalgamations of small schools in Wales has been rather slower than in England with around one or two proposals approved per year. In England small rural schools were closed in significant numbers in the 80's and early 90's - policy was then tightened to make this more difficult and closures now number only four or five a year. In Wales we still have large numbers of small primary schools - 14% have 50 pupils or less compared with 4% in England; 33% have 100 pupils or less, compared with 15% in England.
'The ELL committee and the Welsh Local Government Association task and finish group both recognised that surplus capacity should not be used as the single indicator of where rationalisation proposals might be required.
'The prime responsibility for deciding the future of rural schools and small schools, also the overall distribution of school provision and the mix of denominational and Welsh medium schools, must remain with the local education authorities. They are best placed to weigh up the relevant considerations and decide when a school needs to stay open and whether it needs additional support in order to do so, and when the best educational interests of local children would be served by some form of reorganisation or a school closure.
'Maintaining unnecessary high levels of spare capacity can represent a waste of resources. Surveys conducted by district audit showed there were disparities in the extent to which LEA's were strategically managing school places, were measuring school capacity and were addressing the potential cost implications of surplus school places.
'The assembly's role is to set a framework which offers guidance to authorities on the issues which the assembly expects authorities to consider when reviewing their provision and drawing up their School Organisation Plans.
'However my paper looks at the options for sustaining small rural schools. It suggests that where an authority finds it necessary to retain some smaller schools there are a variety of alternatives approaches they might take to help those schools deliver the full range of educational opportunities eg informal meetings between heads and teachers of the schools, 'clustering' arrangements where there is joint teaching of some aspects of the curriculum and sharing teachers and resources. Individual teachers could take co-ordinating responsibility for one subject in a cluster of schools. Sports and out of school activities may also be shared. The development of IT links would also mean schools working together.
'Federation of several schools under one Head and one governing body is the most formal of these alternative approaches. However none of these options lead to cost savings because they involve the retention of all the school buildings. In some instances the problems may be related more to surplus capacity than to the size of the school and a possible solution may be to utilise the buildings more extensively and for the benefit of the wider community.
'Working up alternative and innovative approaches, such as greater community use of school premises, may throw extra burdens on heads and staff and may need adaptations to school premises or more equipment. I am therefore making available to LEA's an additional£2m in 2002-03 to help with the development of this type of scheme this year and a further£3.5m nextin 2003-04 year. and£4.5m the year after.
'My paper makes various recommendations on the way forward including consultation on revised guidance on school reorganisation and for officials to work with the WLGA on further practical guidance to LEAs on the procedures for making proposals to make the processes clearer and less burdensome.
'Our priority for education provision in rural areas of Wales is that pupils who live there should have access to high quality education. These pupils deserve as good an education and as wide a range of opportunities as those in any other part of Wales. We want to narrow the gap in performance between schools and drive up standards across the whole of Wales. Any decisions about reorganisations in rural areas must therefore be focussed primarily on educational issues and using the resources available as effectively as possible to maintain and improve standards. Wherever a solution can be found that meets both educational and community interests, it must be vigorously pursued, but if there is a conflict, the needs of learners must override all others.'
1. The Education and Lifelong Learning Committee completed their review on the Supply of Surplus Places earlier this year and the report was debated in Plenary on 10 July. The review confirmed there is surplus capacity in both primary and secondary schools in Wales.
2. The Partnership Agreement promised that the assembly would develop its policy on rural and small schools and the minister undertook to bring a paper to the Committee after considering the conclusions of a WLGA task group which was looking at the issues relating to small schools.
3. The paper, which can be found on the assembly website(under the 31 October meeting of the education and lifelong learning committee) is intended to discuss the issues of rural and small schoolsand to set out thinking on the matter within the wider context of policy guidance on school reorganisation matters as a whole.