Taking ministers out of the loop

Finally, and with all due respect to the Local Government (Byelaws) (Wales) Bill, the Assembly has some real legislation to get its teeth into.

It sometimes feels, one AM told me yesterday, that there's this huge snowball of problems out there, coming towards us, gathering pace and when you're out and about, you can see it clearly - but when you're here, in this building, somehow we just don't seem aware of what's going to hit us.

Well, the gap in attainment between pupils in Wales and England hit some time ago and the Education Minister is getting to grips with his particular bit of that snowball.

This afternoon, Leighton Andrews will introduce the School Standards and Organisation Bill - a piece of legislation which he hopes will contribute to raising pupils attainment in Wales.

It's 112 pages long, it marks a step change in the Welsh Government's willingness to change the law in order to pursue its policies and if passed in its current form, could have a major impact not only on the way education is organised but also, on the way your children and mine are taught.

Successive education ministers have found themselves having to act as judge and jury in determining whether local school reorganisations should go ahead or not.

Under current legislation, even a single objection to a proposal to close a school immediately triggers a lengthy statutory process, re-visiting in fine detail all aspects of the way a decision was taken, with the Minister then required to make a final determination, a process which in some cases has dragged on for several months given the complexity of many proposals.

Not only does this second-guess the will of locally elected politicians, but with 20 per cent surplus places in the Welsh education system, it's also acted as a brake on rationalising the structure of schools in many areas - currently one in two, a staggering 50 per cent of all local reorganisation proposals end up on Ministers' desks.

The new system will be very different.

Under the proposals, the role of the Minister will be completely removed, apart from where a proposal relates to post-16 education. Now, school reorganisations will be dealt with only by local politicians under a new statutory Code which must be followed, as opposed to the current ad hoc arrangements.

Under the legislation, if parents or other parties object to a council executive's decision to close or merge a school, their only recourse will be to new Independent Local Determination Panels, set up in each council.

These will be made up of five individuals, either "disinterested" back bench councillors - that is, those who haven't previously expressed a view on the proposals, or co-opted lay individuals. These will have the final say - in a maximum of 16 weeks - on whether the proposals should go ahead or not.

Those objecting will have no avenue of appeal to the Minister, although they will be able to appeal to the Ombudsman on the grounds of maladministration in the usual way. Unless there were errors in the decision process, though, these are unlikely to succeed.

The government has considered and rejected, the option of introducing an independent adjudicator as exists in England.

We can expect to hear much more about ILDPs in the future, I suspect.

The government's timescale is to have all the changes, including the new Code, in place by autumn 2013. It's an indication that their patience with the slow progress of school reorganisation has run out.

In crude terms, they're saying to councils - over to you, guys. Get on with it and don't look to us in Cardiff every time the going gets tough.

The Bill may also have a significant impact, not only on where pupils may be taught in future but also what they're taught.

Contained in the proposals are powers for either a council or a Minister to issue statutory guidance to a school where they feel that their method of teaching - say, reading - is not consistent with best practice and cannot be shown to be delivering appreciable results.

This raises the possibility of a Minister in Cardiff Bay with the power to direct individual schools in the way they teach their pupils. Granted, it's more likely that local authorities would exercise this power but it means significant powers potentially in the hands of Ministers, effectively allowing them to stipulate how Welsh pupils will be taught on a school by school basis.

The Bill begins its first stage in the Assembly this afternoon. The opposition parties have long decried the lack of legislation coming from the Welsh Government. Now they've got something to chew over.