SOC it to them

Laurence Pollock

Will the new schools organisation committees have

genuine power? The jury is still out. Laurence Pollock reports

A SCHOOL closure is a highly emotive event in any community. Governors and parents will fight to the last to keep it open.

Traditionally, a local education authority recommendation for closure went off to the Secretary of State's desk where it could gather several layers of dust. Planners often waited18 months to two years for a result, tying up resources and hindering development elsewhere.

Now final - and, it is promised, faster - decisions on closing and opening schools, and planning provision of places, have been brought back to the local community, through the new schools organisation committees (SOCs). And governors have been given a key representative role.

Does this mean genuine local control? Or has the Government created another cumbersome level of ineffective decision-making? The reactions from key players and governors suggest the jury is still out.

SOCs took over from the Secretary of State in September. They are set up by local education authorities who appoint the members, responding to nominations where appropriate. But the SOC is a separate statutory body and not a committee of the authority.

The interests represented are organised into groups, up to a maximum of six and including the authority itself, the Catholic and Anglican churches and an optional group reflecting local minority communities.

Within the governors' group there must be one representative each from primary, secondary, middle (where relevant) and special schools. The group should include members with experiencee of special needs. nd it should not be made up of governors drawn exclusively from one category - for example, just parent or LEA governors. Members serve for three years.

Decisions must be unanimous - or they go to an adjudicator.

The Local Government Association, representing LEAs, has welcomed the new system, saying it should work quicker than referrals to the Secretary of State. Graham Lane, the association's education chairman, says they will have an important role. He says: "The SOC can act as a check on a local council doing something daft."

In Somerset, the local SOC has already proved it is no poodle. Proposals to merge Sedgemoor Manor junior and infants to produce a primary school of more than 800 children ran aground at the local SOC. Its decision to keep the schools separate was not unanimous, but was upheld at adjudication.

Tony Sutcliffe, a governor at Sedgemoor Manor junior, said the result had increased his confidence in the system. "Many people now see the SOC as having more authority than they thought it had," he adds.

But Kay Burley, a Bedfordshire councillor and experienced governor, worries that some governor representatives might be out of their depth. "Governors serve a particular school, they do not necessarily act corporately. Nobody wants to close someone else's school," she says.

Colin Ramsay, an executive committee member of Cornwall Governors' Association, worries the Government might be eyeing SOCs up as successors to LEAs.

What is clear is that a new power base has been established linking the main stakeholders in local education. And its members are flexing their muscles.Perhaps LEAs had better watch out.

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Laurence Pollock

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