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Standing Order 29 Resolution on School Uniforms
On 4 June I responded to the debate on a Motion tabled by Huw Lewis which instructed me acting under the Local Education Authority (Payment of School Expenses) Regulations 1999, to bring forward draft subordinate legislation setting out the minimum standards for financial support to be provided by LEAs for the cost of school uniforms when children move into secondary school.
I fully endorse the objective Huw is seeking to achieve. The Welsh Assembly Government is committed to tackling poverty and hardship across the board for the people of Wales. I therefore fully supported the principle of the motion but, as I explained then it is not legally possible to make legislation. The primary legislation under which the existing 1999 regulations are made - section 518 of the Education Act 1996 – only provide local authorities with discretionary powers. It cannot therefore be used to place a duty on LEAs to comply with minimum standards in providing school uniform grants.
Standing Order 29 requires me to prepare a draft Order within a period of 3 months from the date of the Assembly resolution or to provide the Assembly with an explanation as to when the draft Order will be ready. I am not able to prepare an Order in accordance with the Motion. Were I to do so, the Order would be judged ultra vires by the Legislation Committee and I would risk bringing the Assembly into disrepute.
The Assembly Government aspires to a minimum standard of support for those parents of pupils who are required to purchase school uniform for their children, and who face financial hardship in doing so. The support parents are entitled to receive should not be affected by where in Wales they live.
Setting out these values is both Huw’s starting point and mine. Next is setting in train the first steps to achieving the principle of the Motion. This is what I am doing today.
There are a number of key issues that I must have regard to along the way - not least the legislative vehicle for a grant scheme and the funding. For an all-Wales minimum standard scheme to work effectively the Assembly Government needs the support and co-operation of local authorities. I want to work in genuine partnership with LEAs to achieve our goals, as we do right across the Education and Lifelong Learning portfolio.
The first step I propose taking is to consult widely on a grant scheme using a consultation on draft school uniform guidance planned for issue this Autumn. I will be seeking views on:
- what sorts of support with school uniform costs are, or would be, most beneficial for parents;
- what requirements ought to be placed on local authorities as to minimum levels of assistance they should provide; and
- whether LEAs would be agreeable to administering an Assembly grant scheme.
Members will recall that when I spoke in response to the Motion on 4 June, I advised that Welsh Assembly Government could explore the use of section 123 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000 as a way of directing local authorities to provide youth support services which include provision for grants, loans and other kinds of financial assistance to young persons aged 11 to 26.
An alternative approach, and one that is in keeping with the spirit of partnership, would be to use section 14 of the Education Act 2002 which enables the National Assembly to give financial assistance for purposes related to education. There is no power to direct local authorities to provide grants under section 14, but section 17 authorises the National Assembly to make arrangements for assistance to be given other than by the Assembly. An Assembly grant could be administered by LEAs, subject to their agreement.
Either way, new responsibilities on local authorities - whether through an agreed Assembly scheme or through a direction - have to be funded. If a school uniform grant were based on eligibility to receive free school meals with pupils receiving one grant of £100 during their time in secondary school and one grant during their time in primary school, that would be a total annual cost to the Assembly of around £1.5m - £9,255,700 (£3,562,900 secondary and £5,692,800 primary) spread over 7 primary year groups and 5 secondary year groups. Initial costs would be higher if there were a wish to help parents of pupils already in primary and secondary schools as well as parents of new entrants.
In developing a grant scheme we will need to take into account views expressed during the consultation if we are to provide support in the way it is most needed.
To sum up then, the way I intend to take forward the Standing Order 29 Motion is to:
- consult in the Autumn on ways to develop the principle supported by the Assembly vote
- between now and the end of the consultation period, explore in greater detail the use of the grant-making power contained in section 14 of the Education Act 2002 to establish an Assembly grant, or the power of direction in section 123 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000, to require LEAs to make minimum grants for the purchase of uniform for secondary school pupils
- in the light of consultation responses, consider putting in place a minimum standard grant scheme for the whole of Wales.