Closing or merging schools? Listen to the little ones

13th November 2009 at 00:00
Pupils' thoughts on reorganisation, bullying and toilets need to be considered

Original paper headline: Listen to the little ones when closing or merging schools, says commissioner

Councils need to pay more attention to pupils' views when planning controversial school reorganisations, the Children's Commissioner for Wales has said.

In his annual report, published this week, Keith Towler expresses concern that local authorities are still failing to listen to the children and young people affected by school closures and mergers.

Mr Towler said his office had been contacted a number of times in the past year by parents and teachers with concerns about the negative impact of reorganisation on pupils.

Revised guidance on reorganisation proposals will be issued by the Assembly government in January. This will encourage local authorities to consult with pupils, although there will be no statutory duty for them to do so.

But speaking to TES Cymru, Mr Towler said: "The simple message is that we don't give children and young people enough credit about how they have thought through the impact of reorganisation on them and their friends. Their analysis is really quite sophisticated, and we need to give them more credit and listen to what they have to say."

Mr Towler said it was incumbent on local authorities to think flexibly about how they engaged with pupils, and that school councils should be given a major role.

He said: "This is not a passive exercise - it's about ongoing dialogue. Someone needs to come back to the pupils and explain their decisions."

Education continued to be the main issue about which people have contacted the Children's Commissioner's office in the past year, with 177 cases logged.

Of the education cases, 27 were about special educational needs, 25 were seeking advice and 22 were complaints, but the vast majority (103) were about bullying.

Mr Towler said that although there is a much greater awareness in schools that bullying must be dealt with and not ignored, he wants to see more evidence about how cases are being handled.

He also praised the Assembly government's award-winning school-based counselling service as a "fantastic development", but said it is important that young people have the confidence to use it.

Mr Towler said the biggest individual complaint he hears from pupils when visiting schools is still about the provision and cleanliness of school toilets.

In May 2008, the Welsh schools inspectorate Estyn said aspects of toilets were unsatisfactory in half of the secondary schools and a quarter of the primaries it surveyed.

National minimum standards for school toilets promised by education minister Jane Hutt have yet to materialise, and Mr Towler said children had waited too long.

Earlier, Mr Towler told the cross-party children and young people's committee that his main concern was that Wales was still failing to tackle child poverty.

He warned that the Assembly government was "nowhere near" its ambitious target to halve child poverty by 2010, and that if it wanted to eradicate it completely by 2020 it would have to lay down a clearer set of goals to achieve between now and then.

"We need to see the spending turning into real action," he said. "We need less bureaucracy and more focus, and we need to allow people to do their jobs."

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