To what extent are rural schools protected against closure?

This blog article provides some background to the debate on a petition regarding the closure of rural schools, which will be held in Plenary on Wednesday 21 November.

15 November 2018

Darllenwch yr erthygl yma yn Gymraeg | View this post in Welsh

This blog article provides some background to the debate on a petition regarding the closure of rural schools, which will be held in Plenary on Wednesday 21 November.

The new School Organisation Code (second edition, 2018), which came into force on 1 November 2018, establishes a ‘presumption against closure’ of rural schools. The new Code includes a list of schools which are designated as ‘rural’ schools for this purpose. There are 218 schools listed in Annex F of the document.

The School Organisation Code sets out the process local authorities (or governing bodies in the case of foundation or voluntary schools) must follow when considering amalgamating or closing schools and is subordinate legislation made under the School Standards and Organisation (Wales) Act 2013.

The relevant section of the new Code (section 1.8) states that ‘a more detailed set of procedures and requirements’ must be followed when proposing to close a rural school.

As the Cabinet Secretary for Education has highlighted:

A presumption against closure does not mean rural schools will never close. However, the case for closure must be strong and not taken until all viable alternatives to closure have been conscientiously considered, including federation.

The petition under debate

The petition to be debated by the Assembly highlights that local authorities can close schools, which would otherwise be covered by the presumption against closure, where the proposal has been initiated prior to the new Code coming into effect. This is because the new Code (1 November 2018) makes it clear that where a local authority has commenced the consultation phase of the statutory process before this date, the proposal is to be determined in accordance with the first edition of the School Organisation Code (2013), which has no such presumption against the closure of rural schools.

The petition cites the case of Isle of Anglesey County Council’s proposal to close two community primary schools, Ysgol Bodffordd and Ysgol Corn Hir, and build a new replacement school. Ysgol Bodffordd is on the list of rural schools in the new Code.

Isle of Anglesey’s Executive resolved on 30 April 2018 to proceed with the proposal, following a consultation the Council undertook between 20 February and 6 April this year.

Isle of Anglesey subsequently published the statutory notice on 28 September 2018, shortly before the end of the 26 week period during which, under the School Organisation Code (2013), a local authority has to issue a statutory notice following the end of the consultation. Isle of Anglesey’s statutory notice stated that it intends to implement the proposal on 1 September 2020.

Under the 2013 Code, the Council was required to allow for an objection period of 28 days (until 29 October 2018). It must then publish an objection report, summarising the objections received and its response to these, within seven days of determining the proposal. Due to the advanced stage in the process, Isle of Anglesey may determine its proposal according to the 2013 Code, despite Ysgol Bodffordd being a rural school listed in the 2018 Code.

The Petitions Committee considered the petition on 25 September 2018 and decided to request that it be debated in Plenary. This was agreed by the Business Committee on 9 October 2018.

Recent Welsh Government policy

A review of the policy regarding surplus school places, with an emphasis on rural schools, was one of the ten education priorities agreed by Kirsty Williams with the First Minister upon her appointment as Cabinet Secretary for Education in June 2016. The Welsh Government consulted during summer 2017 on introducing a presumption against the closure of rural schools through revising the School Organisation Code. The Cabinet Secretary said that ‘maintaining the provision of an accessible school in some small, rural communities can make a significant contribution to the long-term sustainability of the local community’.

The Welsh Government initially proposed to designate 191 schools as rural schools. The Cabinet Secretary for Education told the Children, Young People and Education (CYPE) Committee on 28 June 2018 (paras 60-76) that the consultation had given rise to calls for the definition of a rural school to be widened, which would take in a further 28 schools, bringing the total up to 219. The Welsh Government consulted those additional local authorities who would be affected, an additional step which it said delayed the introduction of the new Code.

On 17 September 2018, the Cabinet Secretary for Education issued a statement announcing the laying of the draft School Organisation Code. Following the 40 day period for potential annulment under the Assembly’s Negative procedure for subordinate legislation, the new Code came into force on 1 November 2018.

What has the Welsh Government expected from local authorities in the meantime?

At the heart of the matter under debate next week is that a local authority can proceed to close a rural school, whereas, if the proposal had been initiated nine months later (or if the new Code had been issued nine months earlier), it would have to make a stronger case to overcome a presumption against closure. Ysgol Y Bodffordd is not the only school that this applies to with Llancarfan School in the Vale of Glamorgan another example.

The Cabinet Secretary has said on several occasions that she expects local authorities to factor in the Welsh Government’s new policy towards rural schools when making decisions about school reorganisation.

When asked what would happen to schools (such as is the case with Ysgol Bodffordd) whose status would be protected to a greater extent under the new Code but are faced with closure in the meantime under the previous Code, the Cabinet Secretary said in Plenary on 25 April 2018 (paras 18-23):

What I would say to local authorities that are considering this matter at the moment is that I have been very clear about my direction of travel and my policy intention, and I would urge them to take the spirit of that into consideration between now and any formal publication of the new organisation code.

The CYPE Committee wrote to the Cabinet Secretary on 6 June 2018 (PDF 451KB) expressing concern at the continued uncertainty this poses to schools who are faced with possible closure. The CYPE Committee asked how the Welsh Government is ensuring local authorities are considering ‘the spirit’ of future policy into account and what is being done to protect schools from long-term decisions being made while the Code is not finalised.

The Cabinet Secretary responded to the CYPE Committee on 29 June 2018, (PDF 182KB) saying:

I have been very clear in respect of the direction of travel of this policy and my expectation that local authorities act in the spirit of the proposed changes.  However, I have also pointed out on a number of occasions that the statutory Code is not retrospective and that any changes to the existing Code will not have effect until the second version of the Code comes into force.  With that in mind, whilst I have made my expectations clear, there is no statutory requirement on local authorities and other proposers to comply with provisions in the second version of the Code until it comes into force.

Assembly Members and stakeholders may wish to note that some school closures are part of wider reorganisation proposals for which local authorities are reliant on match funding from the Welsh Government’s 21st Century Schools programme, as in the case of Isle of Anglesey’s proposal.

How to follow the debate?

The debate by Assembly Members is scheduled for Wednesday 21 November 2018. The Plenary session will be broadcast on Senedd TV and a transcript will be available on the Assembly’s Record of Proceedings.

Article by Michael Dauncey, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

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