Glimmer of hope for Abersoch school threatened with closure
Gareth Williams, local democracy reporter
A Gwynedd Council committee has offered Ysgol Abersoch a last-minute glimmer of hope after referring closure of the seven-pupil school back to the Cabinet.
Thursday’s meeting of the Education and Economy Scrutiny Committee flagged up concerns following last month’s decision to close the seven-pupil school after the local member pointed to proposed new housing and employment opportunities in the village.
Set to close in December, with pupils transferred 1.4 miles away to Ysgol Sarn Bach where transport is already provided, the decision was made despite a long-running and highly publicised local campaign.
Language campaigners have also vociferously campaigned on the impact on Welsh culture in the popular resort village and holiday home hotspot.
With the school educating children only up to the end of school year three – before moving on to Ysgol Sarn Bach for the remainder of their primary education – its future has been described as “vulnerable for some time,” costing the authority £17,404 per pupil compared to the county average of £4,198.
But despite the cabinet’s decision last month, the item was “called-in” by opposition councillors who were concerned over aspects of the report presented to decision makers.
Having been referred to the committee by its chairman Cllr Beth Lawton, as well as councillors Alwyn Gruffydd and Elwyn Jones, among their claims was that the report was “inaccurate and misleading in terms of the impact on the community,” as well as the Welsh language.
Pointing to the future construction of a new hotel creating 40 jobs and land being earmarked for up to 15 new affordable homes at Bryn Garmon, they claimed that such aspects had not been given proper consideration, while also questioning the decision to close the school in December and in the middle of the academic year.
During Thursday’s meeting, officers attempted to alleviate such concerns, stressing that the education department had adhered to the Welsh Government’s Schools Organisation Code and that closure in December would allow enough time to further bridge both communities.
The report stated that of the 26 eligible children living in the catchment area, 21 were being educated at schools other than Abersoch.
Cllr Cemlyn Williams, who hold the education portfolio, added his view that the process had been “fair”, with some councillors in agreement that a seven pupil school was not sustainable.
But Cllr Alwyn Gruffydd said “he could not believe” that the cabinet “went down the road of no return” in closing the school, criticising the decision to consult during a pandemic and that the long-standing threat of closure had contributed to dwindling numbers.
With Cllr Gruffydd also pointing to Plaid Cymru opposition to the recent closure of schools in the Swansea Valley, Cllr Elwyn Jones reiterated the case for federalisation and that closure would hamper efforts to protect the Welsh language in Abersoch.
With officers confirming that Abersoch was the smallest sized school in the county, Cllr Gareth Jones accepted that seven pupils was not sustainable but also raised concerns over the lack of public meetings due to the pandemic.
Cllr Dewi Wyn Roberts, the local member for Abersoch, pointed to the income generated in Abersoch by way of the second home premium while also questioning “the rush to close by Christmas.”
But his proposal that full council should debate the item before referring back to cabinet, fell by seven votes to six.
However, a subsequent proposal by Cllr Judith Humphreys, allowing the cabinet more time to discuss the objections raised as well as the latest developments in terms of affordable housing and the new hotel, passed by eight votes to six.
It’s expected that a meeting of the cabinet to discuss the concerns raised will be held over the coming weeks.
In response, Ffred Ffransis of Cymdeithas yr Iaith welcomed the decision.
“It’s clear now that the process cannot be rushed and the school closed by Christmas,” he said.
“Cymdeithas is calling on the cabinet to delay a final decision until Easter and use the next six months to properly consider the options put forward by governors.
“It can either be rushed through or this can be the start of the process of reclaiming coastal Welsh-speaking communities.”