THE COUNCIL is going to ask people’s views on proposals to close the smallest school in Rhondda Cynon Taf because the number of pupils joining is falling.
Rhondda Cynon Taf’s cabinet approved starting a consultation at its meeting on Monday, September 18 into proposals to close Rhigos Primary School and to extend the catchment area of Hirwaun Primary School to incorporate the current catchment area of Rhigos Primary School.
The proposal would see pupils move from Rhigos Primary School to Hirwaun Primary School subject to parental choice.
The report to cabinet said that the number of pupils joining Rhigos Primary School has been in steady decline and pupil numbers are forecast to continue to fall in the next five years.
It said that: “Allowing surplus places to remain high through inaction would directly and negatively affect the future financial viability of the school and impact children’s education in the future.
“The school budget with a diminishing income will have less money for staff salaries, curriculum activities, equipment, running costs and maintenance of the school estate and would therefore struggle to maintain their current good education offer.”
It said that this proposal will “extend and expand upon the positive outcomes delivered through Welsh Government’s Sustainable Communities for Learning Programme, enabling more pupils to benefit from this significant investment which has included the provision of the new Hirwaun Primary School building.”
Rhigos Primary School has a capacity of 65 places and is the smallest school in RCT with three classrooms with pupils from nursery to year six.
The report said that the overall school site is graded as C for condition and C for suitability, where A is the highest and D is the lowest performing building respectively.
The buildings are said to be in poor condition with significant refurbishment work required.
The backlog maintenance cost for the school is £184,790 but this does not include costs for further improvements to enable the school to meet 21st Century Schools standards or to become energy efficient, the report added.
The council said that the site itself and the school building does not comply with the Equality Act 2010 given the inaccessibility of the site and that the location of the school, in a residential area, makes drop off and pick up times challenging, with inadequate parking and turning arrangements available for parents.
Currently there are 54 statutory age pupils at the school and pupil numbers are projected to drop by 36% in the next five years and of the 54 statutory aged pupils, eight live out of catchment.
The report said there is very little house building planned in the school’s community area to help grow the birth rate which means that in-area demand for places at the school will remain low.
In 2019, Rhigos Primary School was judged by Estyn as good in all inspection areas.
The report highlighted that Hirwaun Primary School has recently had a new £9.6m school built through the Welsh Government’s Sustainable Communities for Learning Programme.
The school opened its doors to the English medium pupils previously attending Penderyn Community Primary School in September 2021 and the report said it is a fully accessible school building which wholly complies with the Equality Act 2010.
Hirwaun Primary School has a capacity of 394 pupil places and the council said that data shows that the pupils currently attending Rhigos Primary School can be easily accommodated within Hirwaun Primary School.
The report said the wider site at Hirwaun Primary School has also been greatly improved with external teaching, learning, sports and recreation facilities and improvements to on site and off site traffic management.
In 2019, Hirwaun Primary School was judged by Estyn as needing significant improvement but after a 12 month monitoring period Estyn judged that the school had made significant progress and removed the school from the list of schools requiring significant improvement.
The report said that all pupils currently living in the Rhigos Primary School catchment area will be eligible for home to school transport to Hirwaun Primary School and costs will be met by the council.
The council said that if the proposal goes ahead, it will actively explore with residents potential alternative community uses for the school facilities as it said it’s conscious that the possible closure will be a loss to the village.
The council said: “There will be no capital funding implications should the proposal go ahead and revenue savings accrued from the closure will be reinvested into supporting children’s education in Rhondda Cynon Taf.”
It also said that “financial projections show that progressing with the proposals will have a positive impact upon the budgetary position of Hirwaun Primary School.”
The report also said that this school is within the catchment of the Welsh medium provision at Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Penderyn, and pupils will be supported by the council’s Welsh language immersion team if they want to move from English medium to Welsh medium to continue their education.
Cabinet member for education Councillor Rhys Lewis said: “It is clear that it is our duty and responsibility to keep abreast of pupil numbers throughout our schools in Rhondda Cynon Taf particularly with regard to surplus places.”
He said they need to look at not just current numbers also future projected numbers which has an impact on the future sustainability of the school adding that it is an aging site with a backlog of repairs while Hirwaun Primary School has excellent facilities.
But there was opposition to the idea from local councillors and those involved with the school.
Councillor Karen Morgan, leader of the Plaid Cymru group on the council and member for Hirwaun, Penderyn and Rhigos said she has “serious concerns” that the report is “flawed” and “unbalanced.”
She said the report failed to mention the hundreds of homes planned for Hirwaun as an LDP strategic site.
She mentioned the report saying schools are facing increased pressure from pay awards and also questioned why Rhigos is not included in the list of Welsh rural schools.
She said: “Faced with budget cuts small schools are an easy target for councils. Could we not be more dynamic and address the rural school status to maximise opportunities to secure the funding and support that Rhigos Primary deserves.”
She said if the proposal goes ahead “it risks creating an identity crisis” and it is “grossly underselling the value of Rhigos as a community in its own right. It is not a suburb of Hirwaun.”
Councillor Adam Rogers, a fellow Plaid Cymru councillor for Hirwaun, Penderyn and Rhigos said the school is the heart of the community.
He said it would appear from the report that no maintenance work was done on the buildings and that it was allowed to deteriorate but he said work has been carried out.
He said putting in place a bus would cause harm to the environment and now allow kids to be as active as they want.
Cllr Rogers said: “If the consultation is approved we will campaign hard to protect Rhigos Primary as we believe it matters.”
Gaynor Davies, the director of education, said Rhigos is not a designated rural school and that is a decision taken by Welsh Government.
She said they understand this is really upsetting for the community but given all the factors the declining numbers with only nine learners in the nursery, the significant maintenance costs that are needed with the council needing to support the school with some health and safety funding and that the small size makes it challenging from a teaching and learning perspective.
She said it’s not about the quality of teaching but it’s about having a sustainable school for the future.