Non-statutory guidance to assist proposers to undertake consultations whilst restrictions are in place.
Restrictions imposed in response to the coronavirus pandemic do not mean statutory school reorganisation proposals are not able to proceed. However, local authorities and other proposers should take the implications of the restrictions into account and take all steps possible to ensure that consultations are fair and inclusive recognising the unique circumstances in which they are taking place during the coronavirus pandemic.
This non-statutory guidance is published to assist proposers to undertake consultations whilst restrictions are in place. This guidance is an addition to the guidance which accompanies the notice which came into force on 12 February on temporary changes to the school organisation code in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Local authorities should ensure that parents and communities are able to access information, seek clarification and provide comments during the consultation period to ensure they have all the information they need to provide an informed response.
Section 3 of the School Organisation Code sets out the consultation requirements in relation to school reorganisation proposals, including with children and young people. Modifications to the Code in place at any given time are available. Whilst there may be some temporary modifications to requirements in response to restrictions in place, the principles which underpin consultation on school organisation proposals remain unchanged.
Parents (and where possible prospective parents) carers and guardians and staff members of schools affected by the proposals must be advised by letter or e-mail of the availability of the consultation documents and that recipients can if they wish obtain a hard copy on request.
Notwithstanding the challenges posed by the coronavirus restrictions, it is crucial that all consultations are conducted in the best, fairest and most inclusive way possible.
We are aware that there are concerns about barriers to some parents’ and communities’ participation in consultations at this time. Proposers should be mindful of the current unique circumstances and take all steps possible to enable all points of view to be heard.
Good practice in undertaking consultations
Where possible, proposers should consider whether to postpone consultations at this time or to lengthen consultation periods to allow as many people as possible to consider the proposal and have their say. This will provide more opportunity for quality feedback to be captured and ensure all parties feel included and that their opinions are valued. It also allows more time for communities to get together, perhaps online through social media, to discuss the proposal before responding.
Although there is no requirement to hold consultation meetings, the Code recognises that such meetings can assist greatly in the dissemination of information and provide a suitable platform for consultees to make their views known. We know that some local authorities have arranged virtual drop-in sessions as a means for consultees to access information, seek clarification, or provide comments during the consultation period. We would encourage proposers to hold virtual meetings, drop in sessions and/or online forums.
Recognising that there may be barriers to some parents’ participation in online meetings, proposers should provide other ways for consultees to seek information and express their views during the consultation period. We know that some local authorities have agreed to respond to consultees by telephone or in writing. We encourage local authorities to take all steps possible to overcome any barriers and ensure that all voices are able to be heard.
Consultation with children and young people
Proposers must still ensure learners’ views are captured and considered as part of the consultation process. Children and young people will still want to have their say about the future of their school.
Paragraph 3.5 of the Code states that proposers must make suitable arrangements to consult with pupils of any affected school. As a minimum, this must include consultation with the school councils of the affected schools. Governing bodies must help facilitate this aspect of the consultation. Although school councils are currently unable to meet in person due to a ban on gatherings of more than two people – there is nothing to prevent school councils meeting virtually and proposers should use reasonable endeavours to facilitate this.
Whilst restrictions are in place on meeting in groups, local authorities should consider other ways to engage with children and young people. This might include virtual child friendly consultation meetings, virtual drop-in sessions and on-line forums, with school councils and wider groups of children and young people to ensure their views are captured.
Proposers are still required to produce and distribute a version of the consultation document appropriate to the age of the children and young people affected.
Good practice in undertaking consultations during coronavirus restrictions
Consulting online is one way to address the gap left by the lack of ‘face-to-face’ engagement. Authorities and other proposers should consider using video content to explain aspects of the proposals and online discussions could be conducted using online forums and virtual meetings.
While there is no duty for proposers to hold a meeting, many people find this the most useful way to engage in the process and so we would strongly encourage organising remote meetings using video conferencing software where this is possible and appropriate.
Social media can be a useful tool in both promoting a consultation and encouraging responses, and also in allowing a discussion between interested parties.
With careful planning, it is perfectly possible to provide some level of interaction and online discussion about proposals, however those people who are digitally excluded or simply do not wish to engage online should also be considered and not be excluded from the process.
Hard copies of consultation papers must be available on request, but proposers should consider going one step further by proactively providing stakeholders with an alternative to online materials where they know this is most appropriate for that community. Some people will still want to send their views by post and this must be given equal status to the use of online forms.
Placing notices outside local shops, doctors' surgeries and in public open spaces such as village notice boards can also be a really good way of engaging with those people who are not online. Proposers should also allow interested parties to request information and seek clarification by telephone, during the consultation period perhaps through a dedicated number.
- All consultations should be conducted in the best, fairest and most inclusive way possible in line with the principles set out in the Code.
- Consider lengthening consultation periods to provide time for parents and communities to engage with each other and allow more people to give their views.
- Take all steps possible to engage with children and young people on proposals in an age appropriate way beyond providing child friendly versions of consultation documents.
- Consider using online engagement tools such as virtual meetings, social media and online forums.
- Ensure people who are not online are not excluded by encouraging hard copy and telephone responses.
- Consider the sensitivity of the proposal and allow people to have their say, their way.