Written - The Role of Welsh Ministers in Relation to School Closures
The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 sets out the legal framework for school reorganisation in
Ministers can propose changes to the legal framework on school organisation through an Assembly Measure or by making regulations. In addition, Ministers are responsible for setting the guidance which local authorities must take into account when they develop their plans to change schools. Guidance was published in Circular 23/02, which has now been replaced by Circular 21/09 for all proposals for change published from 1 January 2010 onwards. The guidance makes it clear that school reorganisation should help to provide schools which deliver the best possible educational experiences for all children and young people.
It is the responsibility of local authorities to keep school provision under review and to plan school places, taking into account their local knowledge and the best interests of local learners. They should also aim to provide schools efficiently so as to make the most of funding available for education, for the direct benefit of learners. The legal framework provides local authorities with the powers to make changes if they decide that it is necessary.
The legal framework ensures that all interested parties have a voice in the process of school reorganisation. When a local authority decides to close schools, or make other substantial changes, it must first consult the people who would be affected. Interested parties include, amongst others, pupils, parents, teachers, governors, and other schools which might be affected by the change. Local people must be given enough information and enough time to make their views known. The local authority must then consider the points raised in the consultation before deciding whether to continue with the changes.
In most local authorities, the decision on whether to proceed with reorganisations is taken by the Cabinet. The next step in the legal process is the publication of proposals in a statutory notice which normally provides a 2 month period when any individual may object to the proposed plans. If there are no objections to the statutory notice, the local authority must decide whether or not to make the changes proposed, and normally needs to make this decision within a further 2 months. If any objections are made, local authorities must send these to the Welsh Ministers within 1 month of the end of the objection period as there is an additional role for Ministers to play, in that they must make the final decision on whether or not the proposal should be approved.
The guidance in circulars 23/02 and 21/09 also sets out all the factors that the Welsh Ministers will take into account when they have to decide statutory proposals. Of greatest importance are the interests of learners, and whether the proposal would be likely to improve standards of education. The Welsh Ministers will also take account of the issues raised by statutory objectors, the arguments put forward by the local authority in support of the proposed change and whether local authorities have followed the correct legal process.
The Minister for Children, Education and Lifelong Learning usually makes the decision on statutory proposals on behalf of the Welsh Ministers. Normally, if a school were in that Minister’s constituency, the decision would be referred to the First Minster.
The Welsh Ministers aim to issue a decision within 6 months of the publication of the statutory notice, or 3 months following the receipt of all the papers, including the objections. When large numbers of objections arise, or proposals are particularly complex, decisions will take longer than this.