Minister set to tackle closures

10th August 2007 at 01:00
Jane Hutt says she will intervene in local authority plans to deal with surplus places

THE LATEST education minister to emerge from Wales's post-election upheaval will intervene in the future drafting of increasingly divisive school reorganisation plans by local authorities, it emerged this week.

In an interview with TES Cymru, Jane Hutt, minister for education, children and young people, said her biggest challenge this autumn would be the spectre of school closures as LAs go about tackling falling pupil rolls, some with raging opposition.

And she claimed her input, but not her control, would help to guide them towards good practice.

"The big challenge I have is falling school rolls and closures," said Ms Hutt. "However, moves to tackle this can only be linked to capital investment.

"We must drive programmes forward strategically alongside school reorganisation plans. In all this, the most important factor with falling pupil rolls will be whether schools are still delivering educational outcomes."

Her announcement comes after widespread criticism that the Assembly government has not done enough to help local authorities despite placing them under pressure to announce school closures. A recent document released by the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) to the newly-formed Coalition government admits school closures are being proposed without any idea of "what constitutes an acceptable level of surplus places"(TES Cymru, July 20).

Meanwhile, an education source said this week that much-needed research into the evidence base for school closure is being undertaken behind the scenes.

It comes alongside warnings that a new wave of closure plans are expected to bite this autumn. Elsewhere, Ms Hutt claimed that the delivery of joint educational objectives, thrashed out between old enemies Labour and Plaid Cymru in the document One Wales: a progressive agenda for the government of Wales, would not end in broken promises.

Her claims came as former Plaid Cymru president Dafydd Wigley warned that the Assembly coalition programme, agreed between his party and Labour, would need extra cash from London to work.

In a speech at the National Eisteddfod in Mold, Mr Wigley said the onus was on Welsh Labour MPs to press the Treasury for more money to be allocated to Wales in the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review.

Mr Wigley's intervention will cast serious doubts over the new government's ability to deliver in key areas. But Ms Hutt insisted the proposals in the document, on which she acted as a key negotiator, would be met with adequate funding even with a slow-down in the growth of spending and, as she admits, "a tight budget".

As she prepares for the latest round of budget planning, her message is one of stability as well as confidence in the delivery of key initiatives, introduced by predecessor Jane Davidson.

The appointment of Ms Hutt into the post last month, the second minister responsible for education in seven weeks, was greeted with disappointment by some educationists (TES Cymru, July 27) who claim she has yet to "prove her worth".

Many still remember her poor form as health minister, where she was blamed for not having sufficient impact on waiting lists and criticised for reorganisation plans, although she had successes in subsequent posts.

Ms Hutt outlined her priorities in more depth, expressing an admiration for all teaching staff and a desire to help free headteachers from the burdens of excessive form-filling. But some of her first official talks are scheduled with the WLGA over school reorganisation. Meeting with education unions are also planned over the next few weeks.

It is already clear from the One Wales document that LAs will have to agree to assess the demand for Welsh-medium education, including a survey of parents, when setting out future plans.

Ms Hutt said the 14-19 learning pathways programme was a major priority and she would be held accountable for its outcome. She also backed the swift introduction of three-year budgets for schools.

She said: "I've got a real opportunity with these initiatives to deliver a very distinct educational agenda in Wales. It has to reach out to all our children, not just those who find the educational route easy."

Leader, 13

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