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Education Rhondda Cynon Taf South Wales

Bid to save Rhigos Primary School from closure fails

Rhigos Primary School (Pic: Google Maps)

A BID to get decision-makers to reconsider plans to close Rhondda Cynon Taf’s (RCT) smallest school has failed.

The decision to close Rhigos Primary School and move pupils to Hirwaun Primary School went before a special overview and scrutiny committee on Wednesday, May 8 to consider a “call-in” proposal which urged the cabinet to reconsider the proposals – but the committee voted not to refer it back.

Cabinet approved the closure at a meeting on Monday, April 29 due to the falling numbers of pupils at the school.

This was despite nearly 1,500 public objections which raised concerns about transport and travel, the impact on pupils, staff and parents and carers, finance and effective financial management, alternative options and the legitimacy of the consultation process.

The matter was previously called-in to overview and scrutiny committee in January but the committee voted not to refer it back to cabinet on that occasion as well. The call-in was signed by Plaid Cymru councillors Adam Rogers and Danny Grehan and Conservative councillor Sam Trask.

One of the reasons given for the call-in was the need to further consider the negative impact of the proposal for pupils and the wider community of Rhigos, especially in line with the requirements of the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 which requires the council to think about the long-term impact of decisions on communities to prevent consistent issues such as poverty, health inequalities and climate change.

Other reasons given include that there was a need to fully consider aspects of the proposal which are contrary to the aims of another agreed policy change relating to home to school transport, the decision to proceed based on allegedly incomplete out-of-date data ,and that there was a need to consider the merits of alternative options put forward by the consultees, and alternative options to address surplus places.

The councillors who signed the call-in also said that there was a need to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the potential impact of the decision both positive and negative, adding there was a need to further scrutinise the decision in light of the volume of objections received and suggesting transparency omitted objections should be made available to ensure open scrutiny.

The case against closure

Public speaker John Morris also addressed the committee saying that omitted objections should be made available, and suggested there has been no independent supporting evidence from the council that larger schools enable opportunities for more specialist well-being.

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He also claimed Rhigos children would be disadvantaged in terms of extra curricular activities due to bus restrictions and said that Rhigos has a higher Estyn standard, while alleging that Hirwaun is “flirting on the cusp of special measures.” This was denied by the director of education.

He also mentioned the reference to lots of work being need to the school building which he said is a “misnomer”, adding it was incorrect for Rhondda Cynon Taf council to exaggerate Estyn support for the proposal.

Mr Morris said that Rhigos is the only school singled out for closure and claimed there was no evidence from the local authority that Hirwaun school had continued to make significant improvements.

He said Rhigos is delivering “great education” and is an ideal model for success, adding ageing is not a justifiable reason for closure. He also claimed the projected reduction in school numbers is “by no means correct” with pupils who have left recently being directly attributable to the closure process  –  and said there had been a “biased” decision process.

The director of education responds

Director of education Gaynor Davies said that officers have duly presented back all the emerging themes from the consultations and objections and that this has been shared appropriately.

She said they have to look at all the presenting factors but acknowledged there has been strong feeling about the school closure which is inevitably challenging – saying “we understand that.”

Ms Davies said that all objections received were included and there have been no omitted ones. She said numbers attending the school have been in steady decline, adding that projections demonstrate that numbers are “very highly likely” to decline over the next five years.

The director highlighted how numbers had dropped from the start of the consultation from 51 to 46 when the cabinet report was written, then reducing to 44, but said they’re not highlighting it as a poorly-performing school adding “It is a school that has been deemed a good school.”

She said Hirwaun Primary School is not on the cusp of special measures but that it was placed in a statutory category in 2019 and was swiftly removed from that.

She said both schools are accessing core support and not enhanced support adding that Hirwaun is “performing positively.”

Ms Davies added they have to ensure they have sufficient school places in the right location in the county borough and review surplus places and to not take appropriate action would cause “significant issues” and impact the financial viability of the school and children’s education.

She said cabinet had been provided with a balanced view, adding they have done impact assessments and that the council is confident that it has provided all the appropriate up to date data at the time of the consultation.

Why committee didn’t refer it back to cabinet

Councillor Scott Emanuel said: “It’s clearly a very emotive subject.”

He said he went through a similar thing as a 10-year-old and said “if I can do anything to allay parents’ concerns, that was a very positive experience for me because it was like walking into something I’d never seen before, the new building compared to the old school we went to.”

He said the move was being made not to save money but “to ensure the viability and sustainability of education for pupils in the area.”

Cllr Scott said the detail poses a “clear rationale” and that the information was “robust and adequate” enough for them to make an informed decision.

Councillor Ros Davis said: “We all understand how passionate people feel about this” adding “It is clearly a good school.”

But she said the council has to look much more broadly about how it delivers education for all.

Cllr Daves said she was glad that the director of education made it clear that Hirwaun is not on the cusp of special measures and that Estyn had said the education would be “at least as good” which she felt needs to be emphasised.

Cllr Davis said she is “generally satisfied” that all the information has been put in front of cabinet, the council and scrutiny and said that “the important thing now is to move on and start preparing our children for this transition and start looking at it in a positive light.”

Councillor Susan Morgans said as a parent and grandparent she sympathises with families in Rhigos and that she had experienced two closures in her area.

She said the children had better education and better opportunities as well as larger circles of friends.

She said: “It might seem like doom and gloom but there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

She said it had worked out for the two schools in her area and she would like to be positive and think this could work out for Rhigos Primary School too.