Assembly members are being given details and chance to quiz the Education Minister Leighton Andrews this afternoon (Tuesday) about his new bill.
It's the first Education bill under the new lawmaking powers granted to the Assembly following last year's referendum and one of the earliest bills of any kind.
Many aspects have already been reported, but Government officials have drawn my attention to three main effects they think it'll have:
- Boosting schools' standards by making the law clearer about when the minister and local authorities can intervene.
- Improving schools by giving the minister strong new powers to tell all schools in Wales the best way to improve through 'statutory guidance.'
- Making it easier for councils to re-organise schools by giving them ALL responsibility for mergers and closures apart from where over-16s are involved.
WHO CAN INTERVENE AND WHEN?
In the first area, there have been some concerns from teaching unions and opposition parties that the bill would give the green light for local authorities to intervene in schools without full knowledge of local conditions.
Officials say that confusion over the legislation as it stands currently has put off councils from using intervention powers they have now. This they say would clarify those powers, making schools more responsive to direction from local authorities.
GIVING GUIDANCE OR IMPOSING TEACHING METHODS?
The idea behind giving the minister power to create 'statutory guidance' is this: individual schools often come up with a very good way of improving what they do - say with an innovative reading scheme - but schools generally aren't very good at sharing those ideas.
This part of the bill would mean the minister could direct schools across Wales to follow those examples of 'best practice.'
Officials say they'd expect these ideas to bubble up from schools to local authorities to the minister, but schools who ignored such directions from the minister would have to demonstrate with evidence WHY they are doing so and would face sanctions if they failed to prove their arguments.
It's also not clear what would stop a determined Education Minister from imposing a controversial way of working on schools, for instance the phonics method of teaching reading or something like creationism.
Unlikely say the officials as any schemes would have to be backed by evidence.
FASTER RE-ORGANISATION OR PASSING THE BUCK?
This part of the bill gives power AWAY from the minister and TO local authorities although it may be one power that neither would actually want.
Currently any objection to a school merger or closure starts a process which can take months and involve the minister.
Under the proposals local authorities will have sole responsibility for deciding how schools are organised apart from where post-16 students are affected. The minister will not be involved.
So who can angry parents appeal to? New panels will be set up called 'Independent Local Determination Panels' made up of councillors and/or lay appointees.
Councillors appointed to these panels must be 'disinterested' - in other words be seen to have no party or other motivation for not being impartial. If there are no 'disinterested' councillors available then those from a neighbouring authority or lay members can be appointed.
Failing that parents can appeal to the Ombudsman, but as far as government officials understand, there'll be no recourse to the Minister.
The aim is to speed up re-organisations so that they don't get bogged down in the sort of objections and political wrangling seen in recent bitter controversies.