Questioning the closure of small schools

David Reynolds says variability in local authority performance ‘screams out’ from a new report on small schools

Few educational debates have been more heated in Wales than that around the future of small, mostly rural primary schools. Their continued presence is believed by many to help the continuation of rural life, and the Welsh language too. At the same time they have been attacked by those who believe they are draining high levels of resources from all primary schools in Wales. The result, it is said, is that they are making the chronic under funding of education in Wales more acute for larger schools.

In a rational world, there would have been careful, painstaking research to see who is right. But Wales does not live in a rational world.  Small primary schools have not been researched in any great detail probably for fear of the fall out if the research showed any negative findings about small schools. An exception was the IWA’s Small School Closure in Wales: New Evidence, published in 2007.

So the publication of a new research report earlier this year, Costs of Primary Schools in Wales: Review of the Evidence, by hyb, Hyrwyddo Ysgolion Bach, an organisation which promotes small schools, is therefore much to be welcomed.  It has been conducted with admirable impartiality by Cambridge Policy Consultants, although quite why the research could not have been done here in Wales is unclear. It’s based upon extensive research into primary school costs, including the first detailed analysis of the costs per pupil in schools of different sizes. It is the first detailed analysis of how this varies across and within the 22 Welsh local authorities, using data from 2009-10. The research team also collated the 40-odd policy documents about small schools and small school closure in Wales, but sadly we do not get the research team’s views on these.

The basic finding is that costs per pupil are relatively steady for schools above 90/100 pupils, then gradually increase for schools between 90/100 and 60 pupils, at which size the increase in costs starts accelerating, in particular as size goes below the 30 pupil mark.

The trends are the same across all the 12 local authorities in Wales that have at least 10 schools with fewer than 90 pupils. However, there is huge variation in the relative costs between different local authorities. A school with fewer than 30 pupils has a unit cost roughly double (104 per cent) that of schools with more than 90 pupils. Yet this figure ranges from is 63 per cent in Ceredigion to 147 per cent in Denbighshire.

Some differences are even more intriguing. Even if we take authorities where the patterns of the schools are the same, an authority like Ceredigion has very small schools that are only 63 per cent more expensive than those of 90 plus, while those of Carmarthenshire are 105 per cent more expensive than their larger schools. What screams out from these figures – as from many others – is the sheer variability of our 22 local authorities.

The report notes that the net benefit for the education system of Wales if the 29 per cent of primary schools with fewer than 90 pupils were closed would be to add approximately 2 per cent to the primary schools’ total budget. Not an insignificant sum, given that present expenditure levels are so threatened by financial retrenchment.

And if to these potential benefits of small school closure are added the additional savings made from the costs of surplus places being taken out, then there is about another 0.75 per cent of savings to add to the 2 per cent already on the table.

The report rightly mentions that after the closure of a number of small schools, the relocation of pupils on to one site is likely to increase transport costs.  But the estimated present cost of transporting a child to school per year, which ranges from about £500 to £1,500 across Wales, is unlikely to be the same as the cost of transporting children from any closed schools to the new ones.  Most buses used for transport have empty seats, and therefore for many children there will be zero cost of transport on closure. Various suggestions within the report that the increased transport cost per child may be in the scores of pounds rather than in the thousands are likely to be closer to the mark.

However, on the issue of transport costs, as on much else in the report, the pressure group presents a selective presentation of findings. Their Press Release notes that school size is only one of the factors that influence cost per pupil, and that there are schools with fewer than 30 pupils which don’t show an increase, as well as noting that there is an increase in costs when schools become smaller. Given that very small schools cost double the amount of larger ones, this is straightforward distortion.

Further distortion occurs on the issue of transport costs, where the pressure group quotes the figures of from £500 to £1,500 per pupil increases after closure, rather than the much lower figures mentioned in the report on this issue. This is playing fast and loose with the data to support pre-ordained views.

Progress by humanity over time has been produced by the victory of rational world views over the non rational.  The rational picture about small schools is that they do worse for their children, are less appreciated by their core constituencies of pupils, parents and teachers, as shown in the IWA’s 2007 research. Moreover, as this report shows, they are more costly, if marginally so.  In the IWA research, even the communities were seen as stronger after closure than before.  In any other country, the future for these schools would be regarded as a no brainer. We should be grateful to the pressure group for providing us with the evidence that supports their closure.

David Reynolds is Professor of Education at the University of Plymouth and Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Exeter. He lives in south Wales. Email: [email protected] He was author of ‘Small School Closure in Wales: New Evidence’, written with Meriel Jones for The Institute for Welsh Affairs with the support of the Esmée Fairburn Foundation.

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