Analysis of a Ministerial Closure Decision

Welsh Minister approves an LEA closing four small village schools to create a still rural area school - November 2011

1. There is considerable use of language reflecting only assumptions: the Minister claimed some 21 things as either "likely" to do something or under the similar terminology of "might" "may" "can" "could." Neither for these nor the far rarer instances where he claimed something would happen did he provide any evidence, research or other study authority for such claims. They all happened to favour the LEA case. No such statements prefer the arguments made by those defending their schools and for which they have considerable hard evidence.

2 On at least five occasions the Minister merely "believes", considers," "takes the view," "feels," even "hopes" certain things will happen. Again all favour the LEA case and again no evidence is advanced to substantiate the claims. No such statements prefer the arguments made by those defending their schools and for which they have considerable hard evidence.

3 The Minister notes the surplus place reductions are modest in LEA terms and that educational factors take priority over surplus place considerations. In the same paragraph he then contradicts himself by urging the LEA to be "more robust" in future on the matter of surplus places and village school closures.

4 He approves the inclusion of children in the consultation but says nothing of the indifferent quality of such engagement as reported by campaigners. He says little of substance about village impact studies other than LEA views.

5 He reports the significant number of objectors and approves the LEA version of what was contributed without question and with little further comment on what was actually said by way of objection. In almost every case what objectors and campaigners argued was simply dismissed in favour of what the LEA claimed. One school has a significant dossier of events and behaviours by LEA staff that created injustice is taking legal advice on such.

6 He makes claims for the virtues of area schools without citing any evidence. We have hard, respectable and recent research evidence that smart new buildings and facilities may have a short-term satisfaction effect but showing little long-term impact on performance. We have evidence of the unpopularity of area schools in an example in Cheshire where more families reject the area school and where community life in villages served by the area school is in greater decline than where schools remain. The Minister ignores the claims that community life will suffer from losing so significant a feature, citing no evidence that may exist in Wales or elsewhere. He ignores the claims of campaigners that many parents will not choose the area school. In both cases he again accepts the LEA's word uncritically.

7 The Minister cites the LEA's Excellence scheme within which these rationalisations form part, and accepts uncritically that because of the phrase and intention everything proposed is valid just by virtue of the name. This is just more unsubstantiated opinion

8 The Minister applauds token references to supposed concepts of 21st. century education. Neither the LEA nor the Government has ventured any ideas whatever as to what education may look like in 10 years' time, let alone 2099. Yet there is abundant scientific and technological evidence showing radical, rapidly-advancing changes that will make education as we know it unrecognisable. ......cognition-enhancing drugs and implants for a start. (See various studies in the pages of such as "New Scientist." Governments address future needs by unquestioning subservience to present and past constructs of provision.

9 The Minister takes one such time-lapsed argument, namely that young children need minimum numbers of others in order to learn effectively for which there has neon little, if any, hard research evidence. It is an assumption certainly undone in many parts of the world and by those who educate at home. The Minister again cites no hard evidence affirming the alleged damage to children from small numbers and small peer groups. There are countless examples, including in Wales, of very small schools working very effectively.

10 At a time when across the UK the role of parents in sustaining their children's education, including values and attitudes, is on everyone's lips in view of the increasingly toxic nature of childhood experience the Minister, an Education Minister, dismisses the arguments and evidence presented showing that there is no more secure a place for a young child to start his or her schooling than in a school, small and familiar, close top home, and where parents and teachers are readily on the same wavelength.

11 He claims that none "demonstrate the highest grade possible." Since when has this been within the Assembly's guidance criteria for closure and why does it not apply to other than small schools?

12 The Minister "takes the view" (whose view he does not say) that small roll numbers increase pupil number volatility in ways claimed to be educationally detrimental yet ignores the inspection evidence of similarly small schools in Wales achieving the highest grades. Considerable evidence exists elsewhere across the UK with schools of less than 20 pupils gaining "outstanding" cachets from national inspectors. The Minister, as in all these matters, makes blanket assumptions that enable him to accept the LEA case, a case the LEA similarly failed to substantiate with hard evidence.

13 He cites ESTYN approval of the LEA scheme and yet ESTYN has not yet countermanded its 2006 report to the Assembly stating categorically that small schools in Wales were as effective as the rest in academic and personal development criteria. If they really are not so effective in this LEA as before it has to be an LEA fault rather than the fault collectively of its small schools. The same would apply if ever Welsh small schools appeared out of line with other UK and international evidence showing small schools at the top of respective national performance.

14 The Minister claims the area school will better serve the provision of a broad and balanced curriculum. He says nothing as to why he believes this is not currently present in these schools despite acknowledging that ESTYN regards all as satisfactory or better in all requirements. He says nothing of the potential for systematic, informal collaboration to en4rich any such processes, including access to specialist teaching experience (not necessarily confined in small schools to qualified teachers either. He notes the LEA in preliminary discussions dared to raise a range of alternative solutions but says nothing of what they determined or why they rejected all. Yet he dismisses the natural assumption of campaigners and objectors that such behaviour was intentional.

15 NASS was consulted at the outset of these ultimate proposals and in giving evidence it became very clear that both the education portfolio-holder and the Chair of the Committee saw no alternative to widespread closures as previously tabled by the previous administration and withdrawn because of widespread and considerable opposition. The LEA's history shows a clear determination to close schools that sustains objectors' conclusions.

16 It is a legal requirement for public sector consultation as ruled in the High Court by Mr. Justice Mann and as upheld in almost the same terms by Lord Woolf that information supplied to those consulted must be adequate and sufficient to enable intelligent considered response. The LEA has only ever supplied information that suits its case. It has not referred to the abundant evidence that the local community needed to know as to why the case for retaining their schools was as strong and based far less on mere assumption. Those consulted can also expect to see something of what they contributed by way of response in eventual decisions. The LEA, as so many, especially in Wales, merely "listens" and then returns to and rubber-stamps its original intention. We cite an extract from a legal lecture:

(Consultation issues regularly arise in the education context most often in relation to school reorganisation issues and changes in policies such as a local authority's transport policy. Whilst the law is relatively well established both local and central government regularly fall foul of the requirements. Lord Woolf MR in R v North & East Devon Health Authority, ex parte Coughlan [2001] QB 213 stated:

"It is common ground that, whether or not consultation of interested parties and the public is a legal requirement, if it is embarked upon it must be carried out properly. To be proper, consultation must be undertaken at a time when proposals are still at a formative stage; it must include sufficient reasons for particular proposals to allow those consulted to give intelligent consideration and an intelligent response; adequate time must be given for this purpose; and the product of consultation must be conscientiously taken into account when the ultimate decision is taken.")

17 The Minister's use of bland terminology and frequent unsubstantiated assumption in denial of arguments presented objectors to the contrary and backed by real evidence leads to the only conclusion, namely that for one reason or another the Government is anxious to encourage such major rationalisations and widespread closures of village schools and so needs to white-wash any LEA case accordingly.

The 2009 Problem - Wales!

David Hawker, the new top civil servant for the Welsh Assembly, wrote in May that schools under 90 were not viable. Our Powys friends petitioned the Assembly protesting against growing numbers of closures but the Rural Development Inquiry subtly steers its report on rural education provision towards area based reorganisation. The Assembly's consultation on general school organisation has a special section all about small school unviability, hoary old chestnuts of course, and the only place in a bland general document where a real 'steer'; is evident towards potential closure.

The consultation offends every principle of adequacy advanced both in the High Court and in the 2008 guidance in England, and likely to govern new Scottish guidance. We have argued the consultation itself is flawed as it limits the exercise to those already in education when its implications affect the wider tax-paying public, and because even for those in education it fails to provide sufficient information to enable intelligent consideration and response. The Rural Development Inquiry rejected our views on small schools buildings being in most cases adequate or better, in the process rejecting four major studies by such as the Design Council and Price/Waterhouse/Coopers and research into school effectiveness from the UK and New Zealand.

Note: in compiling our randomly-chosen summaries of recent ESTYN reports we noted one school with all judgements outstanding but in which inspectors expressly condemned the toilets as unsuitable for pupils or adults. There was no indication this was influencing standards obtained or general school performance.

Closure With A Difference

50-pupil Ysgol Rhewl in Wales closed as we go to Press. Thieves broke in and stole their heating oil.

Beware! Flawed Research

Small School Closure in Wales: New Evidence - The Reynolds Report

Comments on methodology by Liz Spencer - eminent social science researcher, Emeritus Professor Ray Pahl FBA, was asked to undertake a peer review of this research because it had begun to surface in England as alleged evidence for closing and amalgamating small schools. Professor Pahl himself deplored the use of an IWA brochure as 'evidence.' He also noted the lack of qualification in educational and social science research of Meriel Jones. However, as he was in the area where the research had been cited and did not feel directly involved in the local debate, he asked Liz Spencer. Liz Spencer had produced for the Cabinet the seminal report on 'Qualitative Research Methodology.' She also directed the overall training of students in research methods. The Reynolds Report is being used now as an example of how NOT to do research. In 2009, along with the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University she was elected to the Academy of Social Sciences.

Conclusions - because of fundamental problems with the way the study was conducted - sampling, data collection and analysis - the reader can have no confidence in the conclusions. Unfortunately, in terms of the credibility of the report as a whole, there are some cases where we can see the conclusions are definitely not supported by the evidence presented.

This is one of the most amateur, ill-conceived, and thoroughly bad pieces of research I have seen in a long time. There is a worrying trend for consultants to carry out case studies, which seems to be used as an excuse for conducting poor quality quantitative and poor quality qualitative research. Of course, case studies don't usually allow the selection of large random samples, but there is no excuse for sloppy questions and analysis. Also, the strength of case studies is the detailed contextual information about each case, without which there is little scope for generalisation.

I think the person carrying out the empirical research has little grasp of good research practice, be it qualitative or quantitative. If this is the kind of evidence used in evidence-based policy, heaven help us!

NASS believes the Reynolds Research, which in the "Western Mail" and WALESONLINE he extends by openly endorsing the drift to closures and amalgamations in Welsh education policy, is already being used to shape policy and may be imported into the rest of the UK in similar closure proposals. We wish our members to be well aware of just how flawed this research is. The full peer review is available on request.