English super-school plans ‘unlawful’ for not assessing Welsh language impact, says court
The High Court has ruled that Neath Port Talbot Council acted unlawfully when it decided to establish an English-medium ‘super-school’ to replace three smaller primary schools in the Pontardawe area.
The court, sitting in Cardiff today, 24 October, has decided that the new school proposed at Parc Ynysderw cannot currently go ahead as the council failed to assess properly the impact it would have on the Welsh-medium schools in the area.
The judgment follows a claim for judicial review brought by Rhieni Dros Addysg Gymraeg (RhAG), an organisation that supports parents who wish to choose Welsh language education for their children, and promotes Welsh-medium education in general.
The judicial review hearing was held on the 18 and 19 July in Cardiff before Mr Justice Kerr.
Represented by commercial law firm Darwin Gray LLP, and Gwion Lewis KC of Landmark Chambers, RhAG challenged the council’s decision to open the new school as the initial statutory consultation and subsequent decision did not comply with the Welsh Government’s School Organisation Code.
Mr Justice Kerr determined that the council had misinterpreted the Code by not regarding the local Welsh-medium primary schools as schools that would be “affected” by the new English-medium super-school.
Mr Justice Kerr rejected the council’s argument that even if an impact assessment had been made during consultation, it would still have decided to go ahead with the new school, regardless of the contents or results of the assessment.
Elin Maher, national director of RhAG, said: “We are overjoyed with the outcome in this matter. The proposal has caused considerable concern for us as an organisation, and more widely in the community in Pontardawe, especially as the council themselves recognise that the area is one of significant linguistic importance in regard to the Welsh language.”
She added: “A full and proper impact assessment on the Welsh language and Welsh language education was not provided by the council at the outset and the lack of such an assessment, and the lack of recognition of the significant threat to Welsh language education in the Pontardawe area as a result of the council’s failings forced us to, reluctantly, intervene.
“We are extremely pleased that the court has now vindicated our position.
“We hope that local authorities review this judgment carefully and appreciate the importance of undertaking thorough linguistic impact assessments on any proposed community developments, particularly with regard to education and leisure.”
Gwion Lewis KC, who acted for RhAG throughout the case, said: “This is a judgment of national importance for Wales. It makes clear that councils must undertake a Welsh language impact assessment whenever there is a real possibility that a proposal to open a new school could impact on existing Welsh-medium schools, or the vitality of the Welsh language in the community.
“The judgment is a must-read for everyone involved with education in Wales.”
Siôn Fôn, solicitor and Associate with Darwin Gray LLP, who represented RhAG, said: “We welcome the High Court’s decision, and believe that the court’s careful interpretation of the School Organisation Code will benefit local authorities throughout Wales.
“The judgment provides clear guidance on when a Welsh language impact assessment should be included during a statutory consultation process. Local authorities have a duty to ensure that the strict rules around public consultations are respected and that all relevant matters are capable of full consideration by the public as part of a fair consultation.
“Welsh language impact assessments help authorities to anticipate and then mitigate potential adverse impacts on the language and are therefore extremely important, especially in areas of significant linguistic importance such as Pontardawe.”
‘New consultation needed’
Plaid Cymru Member of Senedd for South Wales West Sioned Williams also welcomed the ruling.
Sioned Williams MS said: “This is good news for the Swansea Valley in terms of protecting and developing the Welsh language locally and in terms of underlining the erroneous nature of the consultation that was carried out on the plans to reorganise English-medium schools.
“I would like to thank RhAG, who succeeded in challenging the council’s decision to open the new school, as the statutory consultation and subsequent decision did not comply with the Welsh Government’s School Organisation Code.
“I had constantly raised this matter with the previous council and with the Welsh Government and am therefore very proud of the High Court’s decision.
“We now need a new consultation on alternative options in terms of reorganising schools in the Swansea Valley and an assurance from the Welsh Government that the funding earmarked for the scheme, which was delayed due to these concerns, will be available to the council for the other possible options.”
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