Saturday, January 28, 2023
This is how villagers feel about the likely closure of their primary school

This is how villagers feel about the likely closure of their primary school

AFTER a 25-year stint as a dinner lady, cleaner, caretaker and one-to-one teaching assistant there is not much Phyllis Bell doesn’t know about YGG Felindre.

“We were like one family, and the teachers used to stay here for years,” said Mrs Bell.

She is among of group of 20 or so villagers, parents and former pupils who have come to express their opposition to the primary school’s likely closure.

“It’s very sad,” said Mrs Bell. “The school is part of the village.”

Last month, Swansea’s cabinet voted to publish a statutory notice to close YGG Felindre at the end of August, mainly due to its dwindling pupil roll.

The school has capacity for 77 learners but the council said numbers were down from 50 seven years ago to just 10 now, with three of these from the school’s catchment area. There are also two children in the nursery class.

But campaigners have written to the council urging a rethink before the latest consultation period ends on February 6.

They said pupil numbers had always fluctuated at the rural primary, and that a new headteacher and governing body were doing great things.

“We’ve had so much interest,” said parent and governor Rebecca Williams.

“We could be up to 42 pupils, but we’ve had to tell parents that closure is hanging over us.”

It is eight miles from Swansea city centre to Felindre, north of the M4, and they feel very different places.

Framed by an upland landscape, the road narrows as you enter the village.

The thermometer in my car drops from a balmy 2 degrees C to freezing, and the two vehicles coming the other way are trailer-pulling 4x4s.

Stepping out of my car at the Shepherds Country Inn car park, adjacent to the school, I squint in the winter sunshine. Silence reigns.

Angharad Dafis, whose three children attended YGG Felindre, has penned the letter signed by more than 120 people which calls for a council rethink.

“There is a kind of mass depression here,” she said.

The letter said closing the school “would prove to be a death blow to the future of the Welsh language” in the area and that serious consideration should have been given to expanding the catchment area.

It also sets out complaints about the previous consultation which preceded cabinet’s December decision to approve the closure option. These have been disputed by the council, which also has plans to build two new Welsh-language primary schools in Swansea.

“We feel that a lot of our arguments have been brushed aside,” said Mrs Dafis, of nearby Craigcefnparc.

“We have been asking for a larger catchment area for 25 years. It is now a few farms here and there.”

Asked how the school could continue given its falling roll, she said: “I hear what you’re saying. But I would say that people have been travelling to the school (from outside) for decades.

“We have had a lot of economic and social changes here. The steelworks closed, and there used to be colliery.

“Is it the village and the indigenous population’s fault that there have been changes beyond their control?

“We have had dwindling numbers at the school before, but we had a campaign and it was very successful. That’s the way it has always been.”

The 58-year-old said an annual Eisteddfod in the village hall was a highlight for pupils.

“Every child takes part,” she said. “They gain confidence from it.”

Urging council rethink: Angharad Dafis

One of those pupils, Alan Jones, used to play cricket in the school yard with his brother Eifion.

Alan, now 80, went on to score more than 34,000 runs for Glamorgan and skippered his county side, which his brother also played for.

Referring to the likely closure, Mr Jones said: “It is sad news as far as I’m concerned.

“I was born in the village and lived there until I got married at 26 years of age.”

The school and chapel, he said, were the village’s centre of gravity.

“We were nine brothers and two sisters, and the whole family went to the school,” said Mr Jones, of Penllergaer.

“We have happy memories. It was where myself and Eifion, and all my brothers, learned to play cricket.”

Anne Evans, also 80, described the school as an “anchor” throughout her life.

Mrs Evans and her husband Bryan live in Felindre and both had careers in teaching.

Standing in the school yard, Mrs Evans recalled: “This was my beginning. I remember being here in the winter of 1947, sliding along in the snow and ice. The school has so many facilities. It is the soul of the village.”

She reckoned over 100 pupils attended the school in her father’s day, but it catered for older pupils up to the age of 14 back then.

Pondering its uncertain future, she said: “It’s so very sad. The school is the soul of the village.”

A more recent pupil, with similar happy memories, is 25-year-old Dyfan Lewis.

“The teachers were very caring,” he said. “There was a lovely atmosphere. You’ve got the school, the chapel, the village hall — it’s an amazing community.”

John Morgan’s two children, Gerard and Katie, came from outside the catchment area to be Welsh-educated at YGG Felindre.

“Gerard had dyslexia and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and the support he had here was amazing,” said 76-year-old Mr Morgan, who lives near Morriston.

“Both of them went on to Bryn Tawe (school), and Gerard has just done a degree in music technology. Both of them have exceeded my expectations.”

Chairwoman of governors, parent, and farmer’s wife Sue Morgan said her 7-year-old daughter Caitlin loved YGG Felindre.

Mrs Morgan said more people with children were moving to the village, and that a youth club she ran at the village hall every Friday evening attracted around 20 youngsters.

The school’s only problem, she said, was a lack of “bums on seats”.

“We are within budget, there are good teachers, and we’ve got a damned good head,” she said.

Mrs Morgan said the school had two teachers — one teaching in the mornings and the other in the afternoon — one teaching assistant, with another on maternity leave.

“It’s a very nurturing school,” said Mrs Morgan. “The year six pupils look after the nursery ones. They’re such a good bunch of kids.”

Asked what the effect of closure would be, the 49-year-old replied: “It’s hard to know. But I think the village will go downhill.”

The last Estyn inspection of YGG Felindre in 2015 judged the school’s performance as adequate.

According to the report before cabinet last month, the school was removed from Estyn monitoring the following year after considerable support from the council and investment of time by school staff.

The report said education provision over the previous five years had been “weak”, and that the authority could not sustain its extra support over the long term.

Although the closure decision was not based on finances, funding YGG Felindre costs £7,381 per pupil — more than double the city average.

Across Wales, new guidelines have come into force which mean local authorities should not close rural schools without considering all viable alternatives.

Speaking in November last year, Cabinet Secretary for Education Kirsty Williams said: “This doesn’t mean a rural school will never close, but it does mean that all options and suggestions are on the table before a decision is made.”

The plan in Swansea now is for a new YGG Tan-y-lan to be built at Clase, and a new YGG Tirdeunaw on surplus land at YGG Bryn Tawe, Penlan, to meet the growing demand for Welsh-language education. But Craigcefnparc primary is also set to close.

Cabinet will consider the latest set of consultation responses after the February 6 deadline, and then decide at a meeting in March whether to confirm the closures.

Referring to the YGG Felindre proposal, a council spokesman reiterated that pupil numbers were down to 12 and that most of them came from outside the catchment area.

“All of the pupils are currently being taught in the same class and the sustained fall in pupil numbers has also resulted in significant issues attracting teaching staff which has been reflected in a number of acting headteacher appointments,” he said.

“Despite the significant additional investment and support provided at YGG Felindre, the council has concerns about the future quality and sustainability of education at the school.

“Work is proposed to commence this year on state-of-the-art buildings at new sites for YGG Tan-y-lan and YGG Tirdeunaw, which will be available to pupils in the existing Felindre catchment area.

“Once completed this investment in excess of £23 million will increase the number of Welsh medium places at these popular and successful schools by an additional 210 places.”

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