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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Double Jeopardy

Last year the Assembly Government pushed through a new system under which responsibility for merging and closing sixth forms was transferred from local authorities to Elwa. The change was justified on the basis that Elwa was responsible for all post-16 education in Wales apart from universities and their equivalents. At the time, I and other Education Spokespersons opposed the proposal as we believed that it would create a democratic deficit, in which an unelected quango would be able to overrule the wishes of a local Council on the future of schools under its control.

When the proposal to abolish ELWa was mooted one of the first questions we asked was how the power, only recently transferred to them, to abolish sixth forms would subsequently be operated. Would it be the case, we asked, that the Minister would henceforth be making recommendations to herself? If that was so then the situation would not just be unsatisfactory but the usual safeguards, whereby the Minister acted as a reviewer and the point of appeal for proposals being put forward by another authority, would not apply. Effectively, the merger would invest in the Minister unprecedented powers. As The Western Mail says this morning:

The concerns are more than theoretical in a climate where budgets are tight and official reports have suggested it is cheaper to provide A-level courses in colleges of further education than in sixth forms. Many sixth forms are already having to cope with funding cuts imposed by Elwa, the quango that will cease to exist next April.

However, the newspaper has been no more successful than we were in getting answers. The best that the Assembly Government can do in response to their enquiry is to say that, "The Welsh Assembly Government is actively considering how proposals for sixth form reorganisation would be managed when Elwa is merged with the Assembly Government. While detailed procedures are still a matter of consideration, it is likely that Assembly officials will act as the formal conduit for the process currently led by Elwa and, where justified by the independent Estyn review, would draw up formal proposals for public consultation. Any decision would be referred to the Minister for final determination."

It is not constitutionally acceptable for these decisions to be taken by the Minister on the advice of her officials without a proper review process or an avenue of appeal. That was not how it was envisaged it would work of course, but the apparently ill-thought out merger process has inadvertently led us there anyway and from the explanation given by the Government spokesperson nobody has yet found a way out of the constitutional cul-de-sac they have taken us into if, indeed, there is any will to do so.
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