Kirsty Williams, Cabinet Secretary for Education
One of the first actions I said I would take on becoming Cabinet Secretary for Education was to consult on strengthening the School Organisation Code in respect of a presumption against the closure of rural schools.
The School Organisation Code, made under the School Standards and Organisation (Wales) Act 2013, imposes requirements in accordance with which relevant bodies (the Welsh Ministers, local authorities, governing bodies and other promoters) must act. It also includes practical guidance to which they must have due regard and sets out the policy context, general principles and factors that should be taken into account by those bringing forward proposals to reconfigure school provision and by those responsible for determining proposals.
A fourteen week consultation on proposed revisions to the Code took place last year. I am pleased to say that there was broad agreement to all of the proposals. The draft Code was amended to reflect consultation responses and laid before the Assembly for 40 days in September as required by 2013 Act.
The 40 day period ended on 26 October. I am now delighted to advise that the revised Code, which introduces a presumption against the closure of rural schools and sets out the first ever designation and list of rural schools for this purpose, came into force today.
A presumption against closure does not mean rural schools will never close. However, the case for closure must be strong and not taken until all viable alternatives to closure have been conscientiously considered, including federation.
I believe that consideration of alternatives should be a two stage process with the proposer doing this before they even decide to proceed to consultation and an opportunity for interested parties to put forward their suggestions for alternatives as part of the consultation process, which the local authority or other proposer must consider. The revised Code provides for this.
The presumption against closure of rural schools will apply solely to schools designated as rural for this purpose. We therefore sought views on an appropriate designation of a rural school as part of the consultation. The designation and list of schools set out in the Code is informed by responses.
When proposing to close a school, local authorities and other proposers will be required to check whether the school is on the list, if so proposers will be required to follow a more detailed set of procedures and requirements in formulating a rural school closure proposal and in consulting on and reaching a decision as to whether to implement a rural school closure proposal.
The revised Code comes into force on 1 November 2018 and comes into effect immediately. However to ensure that proposers are able to comply with the Code in respect of consultation, where a consultation document has been published prior to the coming into force date of 1 November 2018, proposals must be published and determined in accordance with the first edition of the Code.
The presumption against the closure of rural schools is just one of a number of actions I am taking to support the delivery of education in rural Wales as part of our Rural Education Action Plan. It contributes to our commitment to develop a national approach to small and rural schools within the self-improving system as part of our national mission.
This statement is being issued during recess in order to keep members informed. Should members wish us to make a further statement or to answer questions on this when the Assembly returns we would be happy to do so.
The revised Code is available on the Welsh Government’s website at 9:00 on 1 November using the link below.