Pupils and teachers perform better in new schools

Peter Fox says it is ludicrous that a single objection can delay a local authority school reorganisation plan for years

Local authorities have come under pressure from the Welsh Government and Estyn, to tackle the number of surplus places in the system, for both educational and financial reasons. For the past 10 years there has been a steady decline in the number of pupils that are entering the school system and population movement has meant that traditional centres of population are changing. This has led to some schools experiencing a significant amount of empty school places. It is hard to put a cost on surplus places, but where there are a particularly high number this puts a strain on the whole school system in the area. In many cases there are simply too many school places for the number of children that are living in that locality.

This is the second of four articles on the Cardiff schools row we are publishing on ClickonWales in the run-up to the IWA’s event on The Future of Cardiff’s Schools, to be addressed by Chris Jones, Cardiff’s Head of Schools and Lifelong Learning, and Chris Llewellyn, WLGA Head of Education, at the Millennium Centre next Tuesday evening. To attend this event click here. On Monday we shall be publishing an article by Leanne Wood, Plaid List AM for South Wales Central. On Tuesday we will publish the views of former First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, AM for Cardiff West.

It is also true that some of our schools in Wales are in need of repair or require complete rebuilding. School organisation and investment in school buildings are closely linked. Local authorities need to have a clear view of where, and how big, their schools should be before they can commit to investing millions of pounds of tax payers money. More importantly there is growing evidence to suggest that the state of a school building does have an impact on the educational attainment of pupils. Where new, or significantly refurbished schools, have been built pupils and teachers are seen to perform better. It is also the case that state of the art ICT is increasingly used in schools as an integral part of teaching and learning and many of our schools are not in a position to accommodate ICT without significant investment in the building.

Local authorities also have to take the needs of their local community into account when looking at organising schools. Many areas of Wales are seeing an increased demand for Welsh medium education, which in some areas cannot be provided with the current balance of schools. Increasing the provision of Welsh medium education is a key commitment of the current Welsh Government. The recently published Welsh Medium Education Strategy asks local authorities to assess and meet the demand for Welsh medium schools.

To tackle these challenges local authorities have to develop school organisation plans. Over recent years this already difficult issue has been made harder by what is seen as a highly bureaucratic system. One of the most controversial issues has been how objections to plans are handled. It used to be the case that ten substantive objections to plans were needed before the Welsh Government’s Education Minister became involved in making decisions on school organisation and school closures.  Changes in the system mean that a single objection can now trigger the Minister’s involvement in the process. If no objections to plans are received then, in the majority of cases, the locally elected council can take the decision. It is right and proper that local communities should be allowed to object to plans by the local authority. However, it is a ludicrous situation when a single objection can delay progress of organisation by months and sometimes years.

For several years local government has been calling for changes to the current system of school organisation. Therefore, the announcement over the summer by the Minister for Children, Education and Lifelong Learning, Leighton Andrews AM to streamline the school organisation process has been warmly welcomed by local authorities across Wales. What is needed is a clear and understandable system which allows local authorities to improve the fabric of school buildings, address the issue of surplus places, and improve the educational outcomes for children and young people. It is particularly welcome that the Minister has stated that he wishes to work with the WLGA and local authorities to shape this process. We can then support each other to achieve the goals which both share, improving teaching and learning for all pupils.

The recent publication of a Welsh Government consultation on changes to the process of school organisation is seen as the first step to improving the system. In conjunction with initiatives such as the 21st Century Schools Programme, this is a positive move to create a better system that will result in improvements for the education of children and young people. The 21st Century Schools Programme, a unique partnership between central and local government to ensure effective and efficient investment in school buildings, is a model for future working.

Local authorities in Wales will be facing difficult financial times ahead and school organisation planning is a prime example of where we are striving to make efficiencies whilst improving standards. It is clearly the right time to review the current system of school organisation planning and decision making, to allow local authorities to get on with the job of improving education for all children and young people in Wales.

Peter Fox is Leader of Monmouthshire County Council and the Welsh Local Government Association’s Spokesperson for Education and Lifelong Learning

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