Changing Democracy of Education; School Management Faces Wholesale Changes with the New Education Bill

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Byline: PAUL CAREY

A LOCAL Education Authority will today provide the National Assembly with a report to explain how it intends to improve its poor performance.

The Vale of Glamorgan LEA was heavily criticised by the schools inspectorate, Estyn, and was given 70 days to provide an action plan.

If the plans are not up to scratch, Education Minister Jane Davidson could step in, and take over the running of the LEA.

But under the new Education Bill, there are wide-ranging plans to alter the rules for poor performing schools, and LEAs.

The Bill also allows for a change in the structure of governing bodies.

However, local authorities in Wales have attacked the new plans, saying parts of it represented an "unacceptable level of interference in the local democratic process".

The 22 leaders of Welsh councils welcomed the Education Bill, published in November, but expressed serious concerns about some aspects of it, pledging a strong campaign of lobbying ahead.

The Education Bill 2001 is one of the largest education bills ever published and touches virtually all areas of statutory school education, pre-school education and childcare, and vocational education.

As well as specific Welsh clauses, there are general clauses which the National Assembly could choose to adopt.

Some of them give the Assembly power to act quicker when schools, or LEAs, are under-performing.

Councillor Jeff Jones, Welsh Local Government Association spokesperson for education said, "While generally welcoming the thrust of the Education Bill, we have serious concerns regarding specific clauses, in particular those which have been conceived in the English educational environment with no consideration of Wales.

"We are particularly concerned with clauses that propose an interference in local democracy which in many cases will prove unworkable and problematic.

"We are strongly opposed to the proposal to give powers to governing bodies to form or invest in companies to provide services or facilities for any schools, or to exercise education authority functions.

"There are significant issues of conflict of interest and an overload on school staff who are already complaining of the administrative workload in schools.

"Where would the loyalty lie if a school governor was also a board member of a company delivering services to his or her own school or another school?

"It is unworkable. This issue is driven by an English agenda and has no locus within the education debate in Wales.

"A number of the proposed powers for the National Assembly represent an unacceptable level of interference in the local democratic process.

"We are staunchly opposed to the proposals to empower the National Assembly to close schools that are perceived to have serious weaknesses.

"This raises yet again the key issue of the right of the local authority to have access to its schools, and timely action by it, which would make these powers for the National Assembly unnecessary.

"To use a medical analogy, this clause will allow the Assembly to wield the surgeon's knife when local authorities do not even have the power to prescribe preventative treatment in the first place.

"We continue to believe that the powers of the local authority in respect of its schools are inadequate and consequently this proposed clause is unnecessary.

"We are also deeply concerned at the proposal that the National Assembly should have 'reserve powers' to set a minimum schools budget for a local authority.

"This represents an unacceptable level of interference in local democratic processes and has not been properly thought through. The National Assembly's Learning Country document refers to 'close partnership arrangements that exist with local education authorities' and did not make any proposal for reserve powers for the Assembly to interfere in local authority budget setting. …