PRIMARY school deficits seem to be “out of control” in Carmarthenshire and need solving, according to a councillor.
A senior education officer said these debts were going to increase, and that a school “rationalisation” programme was required to meet savings targets.
Carmarthenshire’s 95 primary schools had a combined debt of £805,000 on March 31, 2020, although several were not in the red.
Also, nearly half of the overall debt was incurred by one school, Llanelli’s Ysgol y Bryn.
Carmarthenshire has a large proportion of small schools, and only has fewer primaries than Cardiff – but the capital region has more than twice as many pupils.
The subject was debated by the council’s education and children scrutiny committee, who were shown graphs and spreadsheets on funding and pupil numbers.
Cllr Emlyn Schiavone said: “A lot of our schools are in deficit, and it seems to be escalating out of control.”
He wanted to know how it could be turned around, and if Carmarthenshire held more funding back from schools for its education department compared to other authorities.
Meetings are held with head teachers and governors of schools which are in the red.
Cllr Glynog Davies, who has the education portfolio, said the question of holding money back centrally was one he asked a lot.
“The answer I have all the time is ‘no’,” he said.
The report before the committee said primary schools in Carmarthenshire, on average, received £3,758 per pupil, less than the £4,033 Wales average. The funding is allocated based on pupil numbers, deprivation measures, and population sparsity.
The report also showed that the smaller the school, the lower the pupil occupancy. The average occupancy rate for schools with fewer than 50 pupils was 54%. It was 77% for schools with 50 to 100 pupils, and generally increased the bigger the school.
The report said: “When one analyses the size of school against the level of occupancy the data above highlights the significant inefficiency of small schools.”
Aneirin Thomas, head of education and inclusion services, said the department could not meet savings targets without a “clear rationalisation programme for our schools”.
He said: “Are we trying to maintain a footprint which is too big, too large, and therefore the financial pressure is across all schools?
“This is not a precedent for anything else – but that is the fact before us.”
He added: “The debts of the schools are going to increase, and there is no doubt about that.”
Mr Thomas asked if the authority was willing to accept this, or if not, what decisions would be needed.
Cllr Rob James asked Cllr Davies when the executive board would present a school rationalisation programme, and whether the high number of schools was sustainable.
Cllr Davies said the council was doing its best to keep all schools open.
“At the moment there is no rationalisation programme with the executive board, and I can’t see us having that programme soon,” he said.
But Cllr Davies said it was going to be difficult, and added: “At the end of the day I think it will be parents who will close schools for us because they will decide that they want a better school or better facilities for their children.”
The council does have a wider strategy, called the modernising education programme, which aims to overhaul the county’s primary and secondary school network, making it more effective and better able to meet current and future needs.