Friday, 10 January 2014

Why We All Lose If Pentre Primary Closes

Pentre Primary - Why Should Anyone Else Care?

It seems the fate of one school (Pentre Primary) pales into insignificance given the impending cuts to nursery education. This could not be further from the truth! The decision on whether or not to close Pentre Primary has now become a vital test case for parents and grandparents throughout the Authority.

1. It highlights the degree to which RCTCBC actually listens to us, the voters.

Unfortunately there is no legal obligation on the part of the Authority to provide educational provision for under 5's. regardless of the compelling evidence in favour of retaining such provision for our children. They are obliged to consult but now we know the actual response of RCTCBC to the recent consultation process I will leave you to decide for yourselves just how much actual engagement there was with us, the voters. Anyone seen their local Councillor lately?

2. It will determine whether RCTCBC is given carte blanche to treat schools just as it sees fit.

Just imagine that at some point in the future it is your child's/grandchild's school that is proposed for closure.
The council have decided  on the basis of 'surplus places' -('surplus places' being just one small element of a much larger detailed document) - your school will close.

The proposal is to move your child to another school further up/down the valley.
This will mean:

 (1) Many children having to walk a considerable distance along a busy main road which raises obvious safety issues and concerns.

(2) There is an adverse impact on the community especially with regard to increased financial pressure on low income families and a higher incidence of child poverty.

You are confident that once you present your arguments to the Council they will decide not to proceed.
Your confidence is further boosted when you discover that another school (Aberllechau Primary) in an identical situation to your own had the threat of closure lifted when RCTCBC decided not to proceed to the statutory notice of closure for the following reasons (presented to cabinet on 21st September 2009):
  • the distance and concern as to the safety of the route between the two schools;
  • the condition of and the lack of investment in the Aberllechau Primary School buildings;
  • the follow up inspection by Estyn of Aberllechau Primary
  • the impact of the closure of the school on the Wattstown community. 
Imagine your dismay and confusion when cabinet decides to proceed with the statutory notice of closure. What is the difference in the situation of the two schools? Surely the issue of 'surplus places' cannot take precedence over the safety and welfare of children, can it?
The only other significant variable is that the Pentre Ward is represented by Plaid Cymru  while Aberllechau was represented by Labour.
Only recently Caegarw Primary was saved from closure. The Labour councillor for Mountain Ash West, 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.”
Apparently the concerns of Labour councillors carry more weight than those of concerned parents.

Don't Panic! All is not lost. 

You may have lost the battle but you can still win the war!
You submit your objection to RCTCBC and the matter is referred to the Welsh Government.
At this stage you realise your fate now rests in their hands. Your best hope of success lies in proving that the consultation process undertaken by RCTCBC was deeply flawed.
What's more, you have a secret weapon, a weapon forged by the Welsh Government itself!

It's called: THE SCHOOL ORGANISATION CODE and it came into effect on October 1st 2013.
It is a document which lays a statutory obligation on bodies like RCTCBC to undertake certain procedures that were previously included only as guidelines. It has this to say about the consultation process.
Case law has established that the consultation process should:be undertaken when proposals are still at a formative stage;• include sufficient reasons and information for particular proposals to enable intelligent consideration and response;• provide adequate time for consideration and response; and;• ensure that the product of consultation is conscientiously taken into account when the ultimate decision is taken.
Although  our school was proposed for closure under the terms of the previous document the case law upon which the new Code is based was already established in law.

These principles of consultation are known as the Gunning Principles. A barrister has already advised us that RCTCBC stands in violation of several of these principles in relation to Pentre Primary.
Here is a brief sample of his report with regard to the Community Impact Assessment, an integral component of the consultation process:
(i)      The Council’s Community Impact Assessment is wholly inadequate. . . it is a document which bears all the hallmarks of having been produced with a minimum of thought and in very much of a hurry, simply to “tick a box”. . . a community impact assessment should have been an important document as far as the initial proposal to close Pentre Primary School was concerned, but yet no such assessment was carried out prior to the recommendation for closure being made; and(b)   the fact that on 22 April 2013 Eudine Hannigan said that “the shopkeepers and community of Pentre are no concern of ours” in circumstances where the required community impact assessment had not been carried out speaks volumes for the Council’s regard for the need to fulfil that requirement and did not bode well for its properly considering the impact of the proposal on the community if and when it decided to carry out a community impact assessment.
There is much more informed criticism of RCTCBC's consultation process with regard to Pentre Primary (for Pentre Primary read ANY SCHOOL). The barrister concludes:
5.1  . . . on the basis of the submissions it (Pentre Primary Action Group) has set out above the only conclusion the Welsh Assembly Government can reach is that the Council’s proposals, consultation process and decision were all flawed and hence that the decision to implement the proposal itself is unlawful.
Hopefully the Welsh Government will arrive at the same conclusion. If they do not the only way forward is for us to challenge RCTCBC's decision in the courts.

The Sting In The Tail!

In future all relevant bodies such as RCTCBC must act in accordance with statutory guidelines. For example, when bringing forward a proposal to close a school they must carry out a Community Impact Assessment early in the consultation process. If however stakeholders (e.g parents, residents etc.) then believe their voices have been ignored their objections are no longer automatically referred to the Welsh Government.

What this means is that RCTCBC virtually becomes a  self regulating body. They can, in practice, do what they like. The only recourse is to write a complaint to the Welsh Ministers or the Public Services Ombudsman For Wales.
In other words the onus will now be on you to take action.
Does this fill you with confidence given the manner in which RCTCBC have handled the current state of affairs? In all honesty their lack of vision and failure to engage with communities in any meaningful way in the past have left them with few options.

If Pentre loses the fight to remain open the future of every school in RCT will depend on the whim of RCTCBC. It is a situation we should avoid at all costs. That is why the fate of Pentre Primary is not just about the community of Pentre but about all our communities within RCT.

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