OPPOSITION politicians have expressed serious concern over a bizarre situation where Education Minister Jane Davidson is likely to be recommending sixth form closures to herself.
This "double jeopardy" scenario is likely to be created next spring, when the quango responsible for recommending sixth form closures and amalgamations is absorbed by the Assembly Government.
The concerns are more than theoretical in a climate where budgets are tight and official reports have suggested it is cheaper to provide A-level courses in colleges of further education than in sixth forms. Many sixth forms are already having to cope with funding cuts imposed by Elwa, the quango that will cease to exist next April.
Last year the Assembly Government pushed through a new system under which responsibility for funding, merging and closing sixth forms was transferred from local authorities to Elwa. The change was justified on the basis that Elwa was responsible for all post-16 education in Wales apart from universities and their equivalents.
If Elwa recommended the closure of a sixth form, the proposal had to be considered by the Minister. In practice, officials in the Assembly Government's education division would examine the recommendation and deliver a further report to Ms Davidson.
Once Elwa is abolished, however, the separation between the body recommending closure and the Minister will disappear, leaving a position where Ms Davidson is deciding on recommendations made by her own officials.
Last night all three opposition parties said such a situation was untenable and would lead to a crisis in confidence for parents and students in the Welsh education system.
Liberal Democrat AM Peter Black, who chairs the Assembly's education committee, said, "We have been asking about the implications of this since the announcement was made more than a year ago that Elwa was to be merged into the Assembly Government.
"In fact, we opposed the idea of taking these decisions out of the hands of democratically elected local authorities in the first place. What we are seeing is an unacceptable concentration of power in Cardiff with the Minister, and with this latest change the Assembly Government will be dictating which sixth forms remain open and which ones close without taking any account of local feeling. Jane Davidson will effectively be recommending closures to herself."
Plaid Cymru's Shadow Education Minister Janet Ryder said, "It is very wrong in a democracy that you don't have a clear line of accountability. Unless there is the possibility of a genuine appeal against a recommendation, parent and students will lose all confidence in the system.
"Sixth forms are coming under great financial pressure, but we want to see as many of them as possible staying open. When a sixth form closes, it has an effect throughout the school and is likely to lead to a reduction in the number of teachers."
Welsh Conservative education spokesman William Graham said, "We share the worry of many parents about the future of sixth forms. It would be totally unacceptable for Assembly Government officials to make closure recommendations to their own Minister."
An Assembly Government spokeswoman said, "The Learning and Skills Act lays down how proposals for sixth form reorganisations should be handled. Only proposals that would improve the quality of provision for learners would be considered. In Wales, it is the current intention that Estyn (the school inspection service) would consider these proposals and give advice to Elwa, which would then decide whether to proceed with these proposals and undertake a public consultation.
"The Welsh Assembly Government is actively considering how proposals for sixth form reorganisation would be managed when Elwa is merged with the Assembly Government. While detailed procedures are still a matter of consideration, it is likely that Assembly officials will act as the formal conduit for the process currently led by Elwa and, where justified by the independent Estyn review, would draw up formal proposals for public consultation. Any decision would be referred to the Minister for final determination."
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