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Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Minister speaks

Welsh Education Minister, Jane Davidson, today sought to bring some clarity to the debate on powers that will pass to her in April, to close down sixth forms around Wales. However, her letter to the Western Mail raised more questions than it answered.

She is now arguing that "Elwa's power to propose changes to sixth form provision under the Learning and Skills Act covers circumstances in which such reorganisations may embrace more than one local authority or involve a foundation or voluntary aided school or a further education institution. Such proposals would be beyond the powers of any one local authority to decide; but they would still need to be made with the support of the local authorities concerned if they were to have any realistic prospect of being approved."

Indeed she said something similar in June 2004, when she introduced these regulations. However, she also said that this was just one example of when that power might be used. The regulations will also "allow ELWa to propose sector-wide reorganisations covering sixth forms in schools as well as further education institutions."

In other words they will be able to apply them within one local authority area as part of a general re-organisation of 16-19 provision, whether the local Council likes it or not. I say this because, if ELWa is going to work in partnership with local education authorities on this matter, as the Minister asserts, then why does it need the power at all? It could just ask the democratically accountable local Council to carry out the consultation and issue the orders in the normal way. The answer must be that the Minister envisages circumstances in which ELWa will override the wishes of an LEA. Indeed, in a meeting I had with ELWa officials prior to this legislation being passed, I was told that the body needed this power because they were not confident that local Councils would take tough decisions as required by ELWa. Once ELWa or the Government makes such a decision on behalf of an LEA they are effectively taking powers off local government.

The most disturbing part of the Minister's letter is in her assertion that civil servants, who are answerable to her and report to her on everything they do, can act independently of her on controversial proposals that will generate much public discussion and debate. She says:

"I, as Minister, will consider any objections to such proposals in exactly the same way as if the proposals had been made by the local authorities themselves. I will not be involved in the preliminary stages of bringing forward or consulting on proposals: this will be handled by Assembly officials under formal delegation arrangements and in co-operation with the LEAs and other local stakeholders"

If there was a legally independent body making these proposals such as a quango or a local Council then we could accept this. However, I am not convinced that the Minister or her civil servants can work at arms-length in this way, nor do I believe that such a decision will survive a judicial review made on the basis that the Minister and her department had acted as judge and jury on a reorganisation proposal. This is a dangerous quagmire that the government has stumbled into. The more the Minister protests the deeper she sinks into it.
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