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Summoned by Bells - reflections on the need for a dedicated rural schools policy in Wales

September 12, 2016 11:22 AM
By William Powell in Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion & Pembrokeshire Herald

Summoned by Bells

Over the last couple of weeks, social media has been awash with photographs of youngsters setting out for nursery for the first time, in some cases, for the first day in school and, of course, of those making the transition from juniors to high school. Most mums and dads are intensely proud, whilst maybe also harbouring pangs of anxiety at the sheer pace with which time passes. However, some communities in West Wales during these days, used to hearing the school bell summon pupils into class, will also have experienced a certain poignancy, especially if this is the first September when the schoolyard has remained empty and the school bell silent. Nowhere will this have been more marked than in the Towy Valley.

Modernisation - but at what price?

Nobody would seek to deny that educational standards must take pride of place, when school provision is reviewed, but we should also remember the wider social and cultural role of the village school, before it is too late. It is fair to say that Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire Councils were 'early adopters' in matters of school modernisation. Ceredigion Council has also embraced the agenda, but with a much stronger focus on the fabric of the wider communities affected, in the spirit of the School Organisation Code (2013) In the Carmarthenshire Ward of Cilycwm, scene of the current by-election on Thursday week, each of the main settlements are now bereft of their village school, Cilycwm itself, Llanwrda and now Llansadwrn, the latter two admittedly by voluntary closure. This, combined with the eery silence of the schoolyard of Ysgol Pantycelyn in Llandovery, represents a real retrenchment by Carmarthenshire Council.

Democratic renewal in the heartlands?

It is perhaps not surprising that, in the context of this undermining of community life and cohesion, seven candidates should be seeking to take the place of veteran Carmarthenshire Councillor Tom Theophilus in this month's Cilycwm by election. Following an unprecedented surge in membership throughout Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, the Welsh Liberal Democrats had no doubt that it was right to enter the fray. Our candidate, local young farmer, and acknowledged authority on all aspects of sheep husbandry, Dr Catherine Nakielny, together with our team are getting a very warm response on the doorsteps and at the farm gate. Many had the chance to chat with Catherine at the recent Cilycwm Show, which I also enjoyed very much. There is, however, a palpable sense that this area of the Towy Valley has been cast adrift by County Hall, with those who have dared challenge the hegemony of the current regime facing censure and worse. I agree with Catherine that it is high time for a democratic renewal in the heartlands of West Wales.

Time for Action - if not now, then when?

As part of Catherine's by election campaign, Kirsty Williams AM, Cabinet Secretary for Education, and I took to the campaign trail last Saturday, and met many local residents, including the Chair of Llanwrda Community Council, gaining an opportunity once again to listen to their concerns. Liberal values in Carmarthenshire are particularly strong - and we are determined that these can be recalibrated again by the Welsh Liberal Democrats, to meet the particular challenges of our time. In the coming weeks, following feedback from rural commiun ities across Wales, Kirsty Williams AM will be focussing on a bespoke rural schools policy. Villages like Cilycwm, Llansadwrn and Llanwrda are a stark reminder that these policies cannot come too soon

Kirsty Williams AM, Welsh Government Cabinet Secretary for Education and I join Dr Catherine Nakielny and the Carmarthenshire Lib Dems on the campaign trail