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David Davies: Students need choice in Wales

Welsh Conservatives condemn plans for Sixth Form shake-up.

Speech to the National Assembly for Wales

"I was proud to be part of a campaign in Monmouthshire to prevent the closure of a number of infant and junior schools, following a campaign by the council to close them.

In some cases, the campaigns in which I was involved succeeded because councillors were unable to stand the pressure being brought to bear by so many parents and teachers, as well as elected representatives.

However, despite our best efforts, the LEA pushed ahead with a number of recommendations for closure, which were duly signed by the Minister, as they always are.

If LEAs decide to embark on a closure programme at any level of education, they can only do so with the support of councillors, who are accountable. In Monmouthshire last week, many Labour councillors who were involved in the unpopular decisions to close schools paid the price by losing their seats.

The system is not perfect, but at least there is a limit as to how far LEAs can go in ignoring public concerns.

Perhaps it is because of this limitation on the powers of bureaucrats that the Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning is now keen to see the powers to close schools being given to an unaccountable quango.

These powers would allow it to go over the heads of elected representatives in deciding whether or not a school sixth form should be closed. This is what is contained in these proposals.

Decisions regarding post-16 education would no longer be solely a matter for local authorities; they would become a matter for an organisation that, as we have already heard, has lost the respect of virtually every sector within the education service.

Jane Davidson has told us that safeguards will be put in place, and she referred to consultation. I have taken part in many consultation exercises over the last few years and I can tell you how they work.

We all know that consultation involves the people proposing the unpopular move coming to a public meeting to tell the public that they intend to close the school, the public and elected representatives telling them that they do not want to see the school closed, and then the school being closed anyway. This is called public consultation.

Giving the ultimate say to Jane Davidson is described as a safeguard. I have seen her close popular, good schools, not because there was a reason for doing so but because someone somewhere seems to think that certain kinds of educational provision, such as all-through primary schools, are better than others.

I suspect that there are far too many people who think that school sixth forms are not as good as sixth-form colleges.

I accept the Minister's point about a delay of up to 16 months before decisions are taken. I believe the Minister when she tells us that there will be long delays, which will add to the certainty that unpopular decisions will not be taken until after the general election.

I say to Jeff Cuthbert and other Labour AMs who have been given their notes by the Labour whips, that we are not trying to make cheap political points.

I say to all Labour AMs who intend to vote for these proposals today that, when ELWA decides to shut down your local school sixth form, it will be no good making a half-hearted speech criticising Jane Davidson then.

You will have to take the responsibility for it because you will have voted for the legislation that allowed it to happen.

If Members vote through proposals that will allow ELWa to do this, you will only have yourselves to blame when school sixth forms are shut down.

Make no mistake about it: these powers are not an administrative tidying-up exercise for ELWa. If tidying-up its administration were a priority, it would be looking at its invoicing and payments system.

ELWa wants these powers for a reason, just as it also wants the green light to begin reducing money for school sixth forms in order to achieve parity of funding with sixth-form colleges—another measure which threatens the viability of school sixth forms.

I have absolutely no doubt—and I am happy to say this in public—that if these measures are passed, then some school sixth forms will close and many more will be undermined. That is why the opposition parties do not seek to amend this motion, because no amendment could make shutting down schools without any democratic mandate acceptable.

These proposals are an attack on local democracy, and on parents, and the pupils' right to choose, therefore, we will vote against them, and I hope that any Labour AMs who truly care about the education of their sixth formers will join us in rejecting these proposals today."

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