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Written Statement - Update on National Strategy for Small and Rural Schools

Kirsty Williams, Cabinet Secretary for Education

I am today launching a 14 week consultation on strengthening the School Organisation Code in respect of a presumption against closure of rural schools. This means that the case for closure must be strong, and the decision to consult and move forward with closure is not taken until all viable alternatives have been conscientiously considered, including federation.  We are ensuring that every school and community, no matter where they are based, receives a fair hearing.

In order to have a presumption against closure of rural schools it is necessary to define a rural school for that specific purpose. For the first time, the Welsh Government is establishing a definition of rural schools and publishing a list of rural schools. When local authorities, or other proposers consider closing a school, they will need to check whether the school is on the list and the further requirements set out in the Code apply.  The consultation therefore seeks views on proposals for an appropriate designation.

The School Organisation Code underpins the provisions introduced by the School Standards and Organisation (Wales) Act 2013. Taken together, the changes introduced by the Act and the Code have accelerated the school organisation process by ensuring that, wherever possible, decisions are taken at the local level.  We have reviewed the Code following three years of operation and proposed a number of changes reflecting on feedback and learning over that period.  The consultation will seek views on these and provide an opportunity for consultees to provide other comments on the Code.  

The consultation has been published on the Welsh Government’s website and brought to the attention of key stakeholders including schools and local authorities.  I look forward to receiving Assembly Members’ responses to the consultation and urge them to encourage parents, teachers and communities within their constituencies to respond.

https://consultations.gov.wales/consultations/school-organisation-code-0

In my Oral Statement in Plenary last November I set out a number of other actions I would be taking in respect of small and rural schools.  These actions will support our wider aim to strengthen and extend school to school relationships and prioritise education leadership.  They recognise that schools and communities in different parts of Wales face different challenges as we move forward with our reforms to raise education standards and reduce the attainment gap.  

As of April 2017, we have introduced a new £2.5 m per annum grant to promote innovation and raise standards in small and rural schools in Wales.  Local authorities will administer the grant on behalf of the Welsh Government and have been advised of their allocations and submitted their plans for expenditure at the end of May.  We are currently in the process of assessing those plans and how they will benefit small and rural schools, in line with the key purposes of the grant, which are:

• to encourage innovation (for example the use of new digital technologies to combat the issue of professional isolation by harnessing the power of IT).
• to support greater school to school working including collaboration and federation to raise standards;
• to provide administrative support in schools where the headteacher has a significant timetabled teaching commitment; and
• to increase the community use of school buildings.

Effective school to school working is the cornerstone of the Welsh Government’s strategy to raise educational attainment and a key focus for the small and rural schools grant.  

I will keep you informed of progress over the coming months.