Schools Suffer as Young Flee to Urban Zones; SPECIAL REPORT: RU URAL DEPOPULATION Rural Areas Hit the Most as Lack of Jobs Drives People Away
Byline: ROB DAVIES
THE number of pupils at secondary schools in rural parts of North Wales is falling sharply as young people leave the area in search of jobs and affordable homes - and raise their families elsewhere.
The grim outlook coincides with the latest figures on youth unemployment, published last Thursday, showing youth unemployment in the region has soared 62% since January, with more than one in five 16-24 year olds now unemployed.
School rolls have been declining for several years now and the problem is particularly bad in places like the district of Meirionnydd in Gwynedd. The demographic trends, which will also have serious implications for the Welsh language and culture, mean "hard choices" will have to be made over the future provision of secondary education in the area, education chiefs are warning.
The latest official figures for Gwynedd show that: ? The number of people aged between five and 19 has reduced by 9% between 1981 and 2011.
? The percentage of empty places in secondary schools is twice as high as the all Wales average (Gwynedd: 30%; Wales: 15%) ? 11 out of 14 secondary schools in the county are within the 10% of secondary schools with the lowest number of pupils in Wales.
The picture is bleaker still in Meirionnydd.
In 2005, its five secondary schools: Tywyn; Y Berwyn (Bala); Y Gader (Dolgellau); Y Moelwyn (Blaenau Ffestiniog) and Ardudwy (Harlech) had 1,977 pupils - this is set to drop to 1,553 by 2013 - a fall of a quarter.
The result is a major headache for the authority, costing it proportionately far more to educate pupils in these schools while risking a loss of subject expertise as teacher numbers get cut.
The portfolio holder for education on Gwynedd Council, Councillor Liz Saville-Roberts, says the authority has no option but to make tough choices in the years ahead. "We have every intention of continuing education at the five schools in Meirionnydd. We can guarantee that we can keep education on all the sites, but how we provide that education may have to change. It is the same principle for the rest of the county," she says.
"The members of the [children and young persons] scrutiny committee asked for further work to be done on three areas: on the foreseen demographic changes, also to look at how the changes will affect the standard of education of children, and how we will provide education with a scattered number of subject specialists.
"In Meirionnydd, you have got two schools under 300 pupils and none of them are over 400. Within eight years you are talking about a quarter of the number of children not there any more. It inevitably means fewer staff because the Education Act requires that 70% of the funding follows the number of children in any one education authority.
This can be shared between primary and secondary but 70% has to follow the number of children.
"We are looking at what solution we are going to provide for financial protection to make sure that they do have the critical number of staff to provide a core curriculum."
If nothing is done, children's education will be damaged, warns Cllr Saville-Roberts. "Everybody agrees that if we leave this be, it is not going to fix itself, it's going to get worse so we are going to have to look for innovative and creative solutions."
She refused to be drawn on what the solution could be, saying that a further report into the demographic trends had been commissioned to be studied this month, followed in February by a wider report on the assessment of the fall in numbers on the quality of education and breadth of curriculum. This will allow the committee and headteachers to get a "better grip" of the situation before deciding on the best way forward, she says. …