Parents and governors have accused a local council of trying to close their children’s small school by stealth.
Clyro Church in Wales Primary governing body has been stripped of its budget making powers by Powys Council in a row over cutting a teacher to avoid deficit.
County councillor for the area, James Gibson-Watt, leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats group on Powys Council, accused the authority of “picking” on Clyro because it’s a small school.
He accused the local authority of “precipitous, unfair and inequitable” action against Clyro and its governors.
The council is already consulting on closing a number of its small schools, although not at this point Clyro, which has fallen from 95 to 81 pupils since September, said chair of governors Mari Fford.
Powys’s funding to schools is based on classes of 30 so Clyro was told to cut a teacher, which means cutting the number of classes from four to three, when pupil numbers dipped below 90.
When governors refused to do this, saying projections were for numbers to rise to 90 next September and further in the next couple of years, the council stepped in and took over budget making responsibilities to avoid a deficit before then. The governors said the situation with pupils is due to improve and the council acted too hastily.
Ms Fford and parents fear action taken by Powys risks the school’s future because cutting classes from four to three and having larger class sizes will potentially put off new pupils coming and cause others to leave.
“This could close our school as parents will take children away if class sizes are bigger. This is part of a wider story. It’s the tip of the iceberg to close more small schools. This is a massive question for rural areas. These people have no idea what schools mean for communities,” she said.
Parents have launched a campaign backing the governors saying the council has treated them and the school unreasonably.
Cllr Gibson-Watt, who represents Glasbury, claimed Clyro was being made an example of when other schools have larger deficits.
He said an Estyn report highlighted lack of action taken by the local authority over these county-wide deficits and Clyro was an easy target.
In 2019 many secondary schools in Powys were branded “weak” by inspectors. Estyn said Powys Council had not addressed some schools’ financial problems and raised concerns over a high exclusion rate.
“The council is picking on Clyro because it can. It’s a small school. It would be much harder to take this sort of action against a large secondary school,” said Cllr Gibson- Watt.
He estimated Powys’s total schools deficit runs to between £1m and £2m with some schools facing six figure shortfalls.
He said he didn’t know if the council had an agenda but closing the school, which moved into new £4m premises, half funded by Welsh Government, two years ago would be “a massive political embarrassment”.
“The funding formula retains a weakness that it’s based on fixed bandings whereas pupil numbers can fluctuate, for example at between 80 and 95 for Clyro. The magic number for Clyro was to have 91 pupils, but if they drop below 90, which Clyro just has, funding drops by £56,000.”
The councillor said it would be more reasonable, when school pupil numbers fluctuate to look at the forecast, which in Clyro’s case is for more pupils as more houses are built in the area. The school had also been underfunded “for years” for additional learning needs and this would have affected the budget.
“The relationship between the governors and local authority has broken down. It became clear a fall in numbers would case deficit and they have been unable to find a workable solution. The council has been inflexible and the governors were keen to keep four classes rather than have three including one of 38 pupils.
“In my view there is a chance the school will go up to 91 pupils in a few years and the sensible option would be to look at that and other ways to save money.”
Emma Simms, who has three boys at the school, five year-old twins and a nine year-old, said: ”We are worried they are trying to close the school. We are gutted and feel angry and sad. The school has a good Estyn report and it works.”
Sarah Emmerson who has two children, Anna, four and Arthur, six, at the school, said the council was failing to support its communities.
“We love our school and are outraged. But it’s not just that. Housing developments are going up bringing people and children into the area. This is madness.”
Powys Council responds
Asked to respond Powys Council said in a statement: “Last December, the council suspended Clyro Church in Wales School Governing Body’s right to a delegated budget to prevent the school from falling into a situation of rising deficits over the coming years, after the governing body’s refusal over many months to engage with the local authority to agree a recovery plan.
“The suspension allows the council to secure control of staffing and other spending decisions and to take control of the school’s budget including addressing the projected deficit.
“A local education authority management board has been established and have implemented a Management of Change recovery plan to address the school’s budget in line with the Powys Scheme for Financing Schools. This is a confidential process.
“The decision to take this action is one we have not taken lightly. However, the governing body have been aware for some time of the projected deficit and declined to submit any recovery plan to address this.
“Other schools in Powys that were projected to go into deficit have all submitted recovery plans to the council and these have been accepted.
“We need all of our schools to work towards stable finances that can offer equity for learners across the county.”