The Welsh Liberal Democrat manifesto pledged to protect rural schools, creating a “presumption against closure” and introducing additional safeguarding measures.
The Progressive Agreement contained a commitment that “the impact of current policy on surplus school places is reviewed, with emphasis on rural schools, to better take account of future growth trends”.
In November 2016 Kirsty Williams announced plans to support rural schools.
The School Organisation Code, which guides local authorities’ decisions about schools, will see changes including:
A presumption against the closure of rural schools
Cases to close rural schools must be strong
Local authorities must consider all alternatives, including federation, before closing a school
She also announced a new £2.5million per year rural and small schools grant to support schools working together. It will encourage greater use of technology to combat the issue of professional isolation, provide administrative support in schools where the head teacher has significant teaching commitments, and increase the community use of school buildings.
The Welsh Government will also, for the first time ever, develop a definition of a rural school. There will be funding for the development of federations across maintained schools and better information for those considering federation, and plans to develop rural school leaders who can deliver effective leadership across groups of rural schools.
Kirsty Williams, Cabinet Secretary for Education, commented:
“Small and rural schools play an important role in our national mission in raising standards and extending opportunities for all our young people.
“Pupils in rural schools deserve the same opportunities as children in other areas of Wales. However, they face particular challenges including small pupil numbers, budget and resource pressures and greater difficulty in recruiting head teachers and teaching staff.
“Let me be clear - this isn’t simply about keeping all schools open. This is about raising standards in all of our schools, no matter where they are based, and ensuring all schools get a fair hearing when their future is being considered.
“These changes set out a presumption against closing rural schools and new incentives for rural schools to link up and work together for the benefit of both teachers and pupils. I want to see rural schools working more formally together and across the country, forming federations and looking into the possibility of sharing buildings with other services to ensure school buildings remain viable.”
Cllr William Powell, a qualified teacher, school governor and the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson for rural affairs, said:
“As well as providing education, rural schools have a wider cultural, social and often linguistic role that must not be ignored.
“A presumption against closure, a formal definition of a rural school, and promoting a federal approach to school organisation have been advocated by the Welsh Liberal Democrats for a long time.
“I am delighted that we are delivering these priorities in Government, raising standards for children by supporting rural schools.”