Monday, June 16, 2008

Column, October 30, 2007

THERE are few enough good reasons for living in Wales.
A lack of jobs and opportunities, worse than average health, house prices kept at eye-watering levels by second home owners etc, etc, etc, you know the list all too well.
But there has always been one thing that rural Wales has had to offer that set it apart from the cities that lure so many people away..
Good, small schools.
The village school has been a feature of Welsh life since education became the responsibility of the state. It is as much a feature of the villages in Wales as the chapels are.
And one should never underestimate the desire of parents to see their children well-educated. They agonise over where to send their children and will make enormous sacrifices to do what they see as best.
Plenty of my friends have made the financially crippling decision to educate their children privately. While you might not agree with such a decision, and many of us simply do not have the cash to fund such a move, you cannot fault their desire to do what they feel is best for their children.
So Gwynedd has in its midst a collection of schools that are of supreme importance to the communities they serve.
I’m sure that over the years many of the parents whose children were and are being educated there have had the chance to move away, perhaps to England where jobs and wages are more generous. But they will have chosen to stay, and the good village school will have been a major factor in that decision.
And so what do the bright sparks at Gwynedd Council decide to do with these little educational jewels? Shut 29 of them down, that’s what.
And these are the same people who will be bemoaning the departure of people from rural Wales, demanding action to control the housing market, which they will claim is driving young people out of their home areas.
Yet at the same time they will have been responsible for shutting down the school which might have persuaded them not to leave after all.
You can see why they’ve done it of course. If the only skill you bring to the table is an ability to count beans, then yes, small village schools that have low pupil rolls do not make a great deal of financial sense.
The beancounters will blather on about ‘economies of scale’, which basically means they would like every child in Gwynedd to be bussed into one purpose built school-barn where they could be educated in a cost-effective way.
The school is a community hub. Where once there was chapel, now there is the school to bring a community together. How many sports days, school plays, parents’ evenings, Christmas concerts, eisteddfodau and fetes do mums and dads attend and decide that they had, after all, made the right decision to live in a little corner of Wales instead of moving elsewhere?
In an age where there are fewer and fewer things that promote social cohesion, the village school is a beacon of sociability. It is the glue that bonds a community together by the shared interest in good education.
How many children educated in Wales think back and thank their parents that they were sent to a small school where they had the, almost, undivided attention of a teacher, rather than being one face among hundreds at a bigger school?
Gwynedd councillors have approved the plan to close the 29 primaries ‘in principle’ and now they embark on an extensive consultation process, which you have to hope is a genuine consultation rather than just a sop to the protesters before they push through the closures regardless.
Those who advocate the closure of the schools are, as Wilde once put it, people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
The price of Welsh village schools makes their retention untenable, but their value means that rather than closing them, we should be building more.

SMALL note for Visit Wales, whose campaigns of late have shown considerable style and creativity.
You might want to consider how you are marketing North Wales.
On telling English friends that the family had holidayed on the Llyn peninsula we have thus far been met with the blank stares of those who clearly have not got the foggiest idea where it is.
They all know Pembrokeshire and the Gower though, as we have to direct them up from a familiar place.
The Llyn has every bit as much to offer as its southern counterparts and should not be a mystery to potential visitors.

AS Remembrance Day approaches we would do well to remember that men and women are still making the ultimate sacrifice for their country today.
The Royal British Legion has launched its poppy appeal once again and rightly reminds us that it works as much with injured servicemen today and the bereaved families of those who are lost, as it does with the veterans of wars fought decades ago.
Mention has been made of the frustration felt by the armed forces that their efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are not appreciated because of the political controversy surrounding those conflicts, especially Iraq.
Nothing should be further from the truth. While we have a right in a democracy to question our leaders’ decisions to take us into a war, we should never forget the sacrifice made by those who are prepared to die to buy us that freedom of speech.
It is as a consequence of the IRA tactic of murdering servicemen in uniform that the armed services stopped wearing uniform when ‘off duty’ – returning from service etc. So they are not as noticeable as they should be on their return.
Perhaps the regiments concerned ought to arrange homecoming parades in the regiments home cities. Not always easy when the men and women concerned are going to want to be back with loved ones and now barracks are often many miles away from the traditional recruiting grounds due to regimental reorganisation.
But nevertheless, this would be an opportunity for the public to show their appreciation for the bravery, dedication and professionalism that they continue to show while serving their country.

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