Rush to close Welsh language school ‘reckless and irresponsible’ say campaigners

Ysgol Abersoch school

Gareth Williams, local democracy reporter

Gwynedd Council has denied the claims of campaigners who say the ongoing process of closing a Gwynedd primary school could be breaking Welsh Government guidelines.

November saw the cabinet approve the issuing of a statutory notice to set the ball rolling on closing the 10 pupil Ysgol Abersoch due to low numbers, describing its future as “unsustainable”.

But the authority has now been forced to deny claims by a language pressure group that launching the statutory notice period “without sufficient warning” represents a breach of the School Organisation Code.

Instead, officers insist that the process adheres to the most recent code after amendments were introduced over the summer in light of the ongoing pandemic.

Proposing to close the school this summer, the statutory notice period started on Tuesday (January 5) and is set to run until February 16 – a period Cymdeithas yr Iaith claims does not give enough opportunity for people to respond due to the current lockdown and general public health crisis.

Toni Schiavone, Chair of Cymdeithas’ Education Group, said: “The School Organisation Code states that the six week consultation period must include at least 20 full school days.

“This school, along with all other schools, will be closed for the next fortnight due to the health crisis, and this period may well be extended. This means that people won’t have enough time to respond to the consultation and that Gwynedd Council’s Cabinet has broken the School Organisation Code.

“Not only does this decision literally go against the Code but, by carrying out the consultation during lockdown in the middle of a global pandemic, the decision also goes against the spirit of the Code.

“Public meetings are not possible and the attention of educators and parents are on other more urgent matters at present; the decision to publish the consultation under the current conditions means that there is no transparency involved in the process.”

But responding to such claims, a council spokesman said they were “confident” that the process is being conducted in accordance with the requirements of the code, particularly amendments announced in July in response to the pandemic.

The change in guidelines include a “school day” continuing to be defined as so even if pupils are unable to attend physically due to the virus.

The Gwynedd Council spokesman added, “We also plan to hold a virtual ‘drop in’ session for parents, staff and governors of Ysgol Abersoch in the coming weeks to give them the opportunity to ask any questions about the statutory consultation process.

“At the end of the process, all comments received will be considered before submitting a further report to the Council’s Cabinet which will report on the responses received and decide whether or not to proceed with the proposal.”

November’s cabinet decision to launch the statutory notice period came despite a knock-back from scrutiny committee members who citied concerns over the consultation process during a pandemic, which they said would hamper efforts to hold a “fair and proper” consultation.

Mr Schiavone went on to say, “The school in Abersoch is the Welsh centre of the village and the hope for any rekindling of the language.

“There should be no rush to close it without a fair chance to discuss the implications of doing so – failure to do this is both reckless and irresponsible.”

According to council number crunchers the school currently costs the authority £17,404 per head –  over four times the county average of £4,198.

If the school does close, the 10 existing pupils would instead be offered transport for the daily 1.4 mile journey to Ysgol Sarn Bach.

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