With fewer kids coming to rural schools, local governments are considering shuttering some buildings in order to save money. Rural residents are objecting, saying schools are what turn a collection of houses into a community. Take out the schools, and the community dies, they protest.
So, is this a story about Arkansas, Kansas or Kentucky? Nope, we’re in the British Isles and Wales today, where small towns are struggling to keep their schools open.
Welsh children protest a school closure in 2000
Photo: Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales
Local officials across Wales are considering closing schools after a recent report by the Wales Local Government Association estimated it would cost 1.5 billion pounds (a little over $3 billion) to “bring the schools up to scratch.” At the same time, population projections predict that the number of empty seats in village schools will continue to rise.
Rural school closures have long concerned the Welsh. In 2000, a Liberal Democrat spokesperson explained: “For local people in rural communities, having to send their children away to school encourages them to leave the area. This adds to the depopulation of the countryside and takes away from local people what is often the focal point for village life.” Groups of parents have protested school closures in Wales — just as U.S. parents in small communities have tried to save their schools. Last year, the Association of Communities in Wales with Small Schools (ACWSS) collected a 15,000-name petition objecting to the closure of small schools across Wales. (The British have a National Association for Small Schools.)
Schoolroom in the St. Fagans National History Museum
Photo: Pete Reed
(The Welsh keep their priorities straight. Gwyn Lloyd-Jones, the head of Ysgol y Ddol in Rhydymwyn, said closing the school had “torn the heart from its community”¦ They have lost their post office and a village pub and now the school.”)
And just this week, the Farmers’ Union of Wales asked the government to reverse a decision to close six schools in Powys, a mountainous region in eastern Wales. (In older days, Powys was a kingdom.) “Local schools are the focal point of village life. They are far more than just bricks and mortar —they are a living, breathing part of the community,” said Farmers’ Union president Gareth Vaughan. “Schools are not only places where our children are educated — in most cases they also play an important role by playing host to a range of community events, from whist drives to concerts.”
Protest sign from the early 2000s
The drive to keep local schools open is more intense in Wales, perhaps, because they help continue the Welsh language. If smaller schools, where Welsh is taught, are closed, more children will attend English-only schools in larger employment centers. “The Welsh language’s strength is as a community language,” said Ffred Ffransis of Cymdeithas. “Take away the community facilities where people meet and interact, and communities become a collection of individual dwellings.”
The ideas being kicked around in Wales for saving community schools aren’t revolutionary. Head teachers (principals) could share schools. There is also a proposal that some schools in the cities be closed and the money saved there be spent in rural Wales.
Meanwhile, supporters of rural schools in Wales point to studies in England finding that students thrive in small schools. This is a continuing theme. A federal study has found that rural students in the U.S. do better than their urban counterparts in science — in part because of the benefits of small schools.