Education File: More than 13,000 surplus places in Gwent schools

South Wales Argus: Debbie Grant whose seven-year-old son Ryan attends Pontymoile Primary Debbie Grant whose seven-year-old son Ryan attends Pontymoile Primary

THERE are currently more than 13,295 surplus school places in Gwent.

Caerphilly, which is the largest local authority, had the most free spaces with a combined total of 5,916 in primary and secondary schools, followed by Blaenau Gwent, which had 3,057, Monmouthshire with 2,195, and Newport with 2,127. Torfaen council failed to respond.

With the problem only expected to rise in the coming years, two Gwent councils have put forward proposals to close schools.

Blaenau Gwent could lose Briery Hill Primary, in Tredegar, Rhos y Fedwen Primary in Rassau and Blaentillery Primary, Abertillery, because they each have close to half the number of pupils they can take.

If agreed following the consultation period they could shut by 2014 with pupils transferred to alternative schools.

But while numbers in English-speaking schools are falling, Welsh schools places in the borough are on the rise and the council could open a seedling Welsh school to reduce pupil numbers at Ysgol Gymraeg Bro Helyg.

In Torfaen, Two Locks Nursery School, Kemys Fawr Infants School, in Sebastopol and Pontymoile Primary School in Pontypool could shut their doors to reduce free spaces.

Two Locks currently has 29 surplus places - a quarter of all spaces - while Kemys Fawr has 47 across the whole school.

There are 114 surplus spaces in Pontymoile Primary, totalling 49 per cent; not including its special needs centre, which could move to Nant Celyn Primary in Cwmbran.

If agreed, pupils could start at alternative schools next September.

The proposals have been put forward by both authorities in a bid to meet Welsh Government targets to reduce surplus school places to below 15 per cent by 2015.

Education chiefs in both boroughs say the proposals would ensure a sustainable education system, with schools of the right size in the right places.

But many parents are angry and fear school communities will be lost.

Many say they prefer smaller class sizes and have vowed to fight the plans.

One such mum is Debbie Grant, whose seven-year-old son Ryan attends Pontymoile Primary.

She said: "As it stands the classes may not be completely full in Pontymoile, but is that a bad thing? I know when I have personally been at the school there have been very adequate teachers per class and personally I feel the numbering is actually at the correct level to ensure all the children are treated equally and quality time is given to each child."

Mrs Grant fears moving Ryan, who has Asperger's syndrome meaning he struggles with change, will make his condition worse and he will not be given the same level of attention at other schools, which she says are already full.

She believes childrens' education will suffer as a result.

She added: "To close the school will cause so much disruption to the children, what they need is stability. These children are our future and we cannot and should not let them down."

A report by school inspector Estyn from May 2012 found that as of January 2011 there were around 108,000 surplus spaces across all Welsh schools.

It said surplus spaces cost money because schools and local authorities have to run and maintain buildings that are bigger than they need to be, and pay staff that may not be needed.This impacts on school budgets and can affect school standards.

It said that throughout Wales school reorganisations have failed to keep pace with falling pupil numbers and in 2011 there were more unfilled places than in 2006.

No local authority achieved the Welsh GovernmentÕs recommended level of no more than ten per cent surplus spaces across primary and secondary schools.

It said although places have been removed, local authorities had been slow to identify and complete projects that would create significant savings.

The report said the average cost of a surplus space is £260 in primary schools and £510 a year in secondary schools, whilst the average saving from closing an entire primary school was £63,500 and £113,000 at secondary level in addition to every surplus space.

Though some of this would be offset by the cost of transporting students to other schools.

Estyn said local authorities were often reluctant to take decisions on the matter because of strong local opposition from communities.

But where ever action is taken, improving standards should be the priority, it said.

Local authorities asked said that constructing new school buildings had a positive impact because an improved environment improves attainment, attitudes, attendance, wellbeing and health and safety.

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