Tuesday, 19 November 2013

If You Tolerate This Then YOUR Children Could Be Next

Given the background of savage cuts to services and a possible increase in council tax charges facing residents of Rhondda Cynon Taff we could all be forgiven for thinking the future of one primary school is of little consequence in the greater scheme of things. We could not be more wrong. The fate of Pentre Primary has become a test case for all schools within the Authority. Quite simply, “If you tolerate this then your children could be next.”

It is time everyone woke up to what is actually happening. If the closure of Pentre is confirmed by Education Minister Huw Lewis then this Council will have been given ‘carte blanche’ to deal with schools as it sees fit. A disturbing prospect when you consider how the Council has acted in respect of Pentre Primary.

During the cabinet meeting that took place on the 18th of November deputy leader Paul Cannon refused to allow any member or officers to answer questions posed and deferred them to full council. Councillor Pauline Jarman described this refusal as amateurish. Councillor Cannon’s response was that he was abiding by the rules. If the deputy leader has such a high regard for ‘the rules’ perhaps he should be more vigilant in ensuring that his cabinet members and officers follow his lead. With regard to Eudine Hannigan (cabinet member for Education) and Chris Bradshaw (Director of Education) they demonstrably have not.

The closure of Pentre Primary was proposed under the conditions relating to ‘The Schools Organisation Proposals’ that has since been replaced by the ‘School Organisation Code’. It is clear that ministerial guidance was ignored when the Council failed to produce a community impact assessment at the formative stages, hardly a glowing example of ‘abiding by the rules’. This issue is addressed by AM Leighton Andrews in his letter to the Welsh Government Minister for Education, Huw Lewis.

“It is clear that Paragraph 1.8 of the Guidance intends that the community impact assessment should be prepared before the consultation which takes place prior to statutory procedures.

No Community Impact Assessment was prepared by RCT CBC for the consultation that took place prior to statutory procedures. This is not in dispute, and is confirmed in a letter to me from the Director of Education and Lifelong Learning of RCT CBC dated 25th June 2013. In his letter to me, the Director stated:

Community and Equality Impact Assessments, as required under paragraphs 1.12 (i) and (v) of the Guidance (which you have also stated have not been given consideration) are always prepared and sent to Welsh Government as part of the evidence base we are required to provide.  These assessments are informed by the community feedback we receive from the consultation.  As a result they better reflect the views of key stakeholders and not those of the officers drafting these assessments. 

This statement demonstrates that the Council did not prepare a Community Impact Assessment for consultation prior to statutory procedures, but only did so after receiving feedback from the consultation. The Council was therefore in clear breach of the Guidance.”

Under the new ‘School Organisation Code’ this becomes a statutory requirement but there is a nasty sting in the tail. In future if objections are made to a proposed school closure they will no longer be referred to the Welsh Government. In effect RCT CBC will police itself. Not a prospect that fills me with confidence. During the meeting Councillor Hannigan again raised the spectre of ‘surplus places’ choosing to ignore the far more important issues of child poverty and child safety as she has done consistently throughout every stage of the process.

May I remind Councillor Hannigan that Aberllechau Primary School and more recently Caegarw Primary school both had the threat of closure removed by cabinet. In both cases the dangerous route to school children would have to negotiate was cited as a primary factor. Indeed Councillor Andrew Morgan stated:
“My biggest concern was the location and journey to the secondary school. It’s safe for savvy teens to negotiate the roads, but the A4059 is a very busy road for parents with one, two or maybe more little ones.”
The route children will have to travel from Pentre to Treorchy is at least as dangerous as those faced by the children of Caegarw and Aberllechau so what is the difference? Could it be that both those schools were sited in the wards of Labour Councillors? It cannot surely be the issue of surplus places as what responsible Council or Council member would elevate such a consideration above the safety and well being of the children entrusted to its care?

Councillor Hannigan apparently, as during the meeting she stated that on the previous Friday she and the Director of Education met with Mr Lewis and was assured that the issue of surplus places was still a top priority. She explained to the Minister that there were still outstanding school closure proposals and had been further assured that these would be dealt with speedily. Councillor Hannigan confidently predicted that it was even possible a ruling on Pentre would be made before March 2014.

Councillor Hannigan can be assured that we will make our own enquiries as to whether this meeting actually took place as it would seem to me to be prejudicial to the whole process of ministerial review. Not that flouting procedures established in case law appears to worry RCT CBC. Among the letters of objection that were not allowed to see the light of day due to Deputy Leader Cannon’s ruling was one from our barrister Jerry Heap Q.C. It in fact forms the basis of our legal objection to the proposed closure and is based on well established case law with regard to the process of consultation. It could prove to be the basis of a very important test case for schools within Rhondda Cynon Taff. If RCT CBC is allowed to take action that a court would rule unlawful then what recourse do we have as individuals other than to turn to the law itself? It seems that RCT CBC believes in the majority of instances people will simply give up.

The Law is an expensive option but what is the alternative when elected members are prepared to act as if they are somehow elevated above it. Q.C. Jerry Heap has clinically analysed our position and his legal objection on behalf of the Pentre Primary Action Group clearly demonstrates that RCT CBC’s decision to implement the proposal is unlawful. Below is an extract:

4.1  That the Council lacked the intention of taking into account any responses it might receive is demonstrated by its ignoring or belittling the factors which tell against the proposal to close Pentre Primary School and in particular –
(i)     its ignoring in formulating that proposal the vital issues mentioned in sub-paragraphs 3.7, 3.8 and 3.9 above (community impact, child poverty and road safety issue);
(ii)   the attitude of its cabinet member for education, Eudine Hannigan, in glibly if not brutally dismissing any consideration of the impact the proposal might have on the local community.
4.2  The Council’s failure properly to take into account the responses it has received is clearly demonstrated by its failure to publish a balanced report which evidences that the Council has taken into account the many objections it has received in response to its proposal.  PPAG is unable to identify any documentary or other evidence which demonstrates that the Council has taken any account (whether conscientiously or otherwise) the responses it has received during the consultation process.

It was interesting to note that Counsellor Heap refers to the Council ‘ignoring or belittling the factors which tell against its proposal’. It is exactly the same approach used to justify the proposed changes to nursery education. First they propose the changes and then they seek to denigrate and belittle the tremendous work that has been undertaken in nursery and reception education in RCT throughout the years, a service that has been the envy of almost every other Authority. Shame on them!

Be assured we have no intention of giving up the fight.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The Waiting Game

Waiting is the hardest thing to do but that is all we can do for the moment. The RCT Cabinet is meeting on the 18th of November when Mr Bradshaw will present the Cabinet with the objections we have made to the closure. These objections have already been forwarded to the WAG and now we all have to await their deliberation.

The report is available here:  http://www.rctcbc.gov.uk/en/councildemocracy/democracyelections/councillorscommittees/meetings/cabinet/2013/11/18/reports/agenda-item-3improving-primary-education-in-pentre-(report--appendices).pdf

I honestly believe that the Cabinet have more cause for concern than us. The letters of objection from our A.M. Leighton Andrews and our Barrister Mr Jerry Heap Q.C. clearly identify why the consultation conducted by RCT would be considered unlawful in a court of law. Hopefully the WAG will agree with their assessment. If not we are prepared to contest the decision in court because we are confident of our position with regard to the law.

Although written in legal jargon the objection raised by our barrister is very well worth reading!

We are unlikely to get a decision before next March so it is important everyone keeps the faith. Until then please support all the fundraising activities that not only raise the necessary legal costs but also help keep us together as a community. They are also very enjoyable events even if I am fast becoming an alcoholic!