Shake-up planned of way school closures handled

image captionLeighton Andrews is pushing for a new school closure system

The Welsh education minister has announced a shake-up of how school closures and reorganisations are handled.

In future, Leighton Andrews says local authorities in Wales should have more freedom to make decisions without being overruled by ministers.

He claims the current system causes uncertainty for parents and pupils.

The announcement coincided with Ceredigion proposing a review of schools in the Llandysul area.

The plan involves a super-school to teach pupils from the ages of three to 19.

A series of council reviews have been unveiled in recent years, as local authorities deal with falling pupil numbers and other factors, such as ageing buildings and maintenance costs.

First Minister Carwyn Jones made a ruling at the end of last month.

Only this week, plans to halve the number of schools in Conwy were unveiled, with other plans involving schools in the Bala area of Gwynedd.

The thrust of Mr Andrews' proposal is to simplify the process so only the most controversial proposals land on the desks of ministers.

In a statement published on Tuesday, he said: "I have made it clear that I have had concerns about the process and the length of time some decisions have taken to determine.

"The current system leads to uncertainty for parents and pupils. Parents and local authorities tell us that they want more certainty in order to plan for the future of pupils."

He said a Price Waterhouse Coopers review had called on the assembly government to establish a "new trust" across the system and to simplify systems of governance.

He added: "We need to be more efficient. We need to ensure that public money is being spent effectively."

The current system is handicapped by a rule that means if one formal objection is made, councils must automatically refer proposals to the assembly government for its final say. The process can take months and has come in for criticism.

Mr Andrews says he intends to bring the system more in line with the current planning process, where ministers will only call in a small number of highly controversial proposals in rare circumstances.

'Tighter rein'

It would mean that public objections would have to be taken into account by local authorities but wouldn't trigger a referral to the assembly government. Pilots to test the new system will start in the autumn but it is hoped they could save six weeks in the statutory process.

The new draft regulations will be subject to public consultation with the aim of being in force by early 2011.

Mr Andrews added that he was troubled by the fact Wales appeared to keep a "tighter rein" on local authorities than England or Scotland.

But Conservative education spokesman Paul Davies AM urged caution and called on Mr Andrews to confirm if any school re-organisations currently underway would be put on hold until the new regulations are in place.

He said: "Schools re-organisation is causing great concern for parents and for communities across Wales.

"It is crucial there is a robust consultation process in place so everyone is able to put forward their views.

"The minister must also tell us how these new regulations will specifically deal with the issue of surplus places and how the assembly government will support areas where surplus places may not be an issue but where schools are still threatened with closure."

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