The controversial decision to axe a board which advises Leeds City Council on schools has been backed by a committee of councillors this afternoon.
The council’s School Organisation Advisory Board (SOAB) meets when objections are made against school closures, openings or expansions, and is made up of independent education experts. It then advises the council on such decisions.
However, Leeds City Council’s executive board voted last month to abolish SOAB due to time limits around scrutiny, its lack of use and inactive members.
The decision was called in by opposition councillors who argued it reduced council transparency and the ability for the public to object to council decisions.
Coun Dan Cohen (Con) told a meeting of the council’s children and families scrutiny board: “It’s really important to note that this call-in has been signed by every single opposition group on LCC. It’s not the Conservatives, it is the whole opposition.
“A number of Labour members were concerned about this, but felt that they couldn’t sign the call in.
“The independent review of objections and concerns is a positive thing. We should look for ways to increase transparency on decisions. We should not give our residents less scope – we need to give them more opportunities to feel they are being listened to.”
A report which went to the council’s executive board last month claimed SOAB had only met six times in the past five years, due to a lack of objections from the public. During that same period, there have been more than 40 proposals which have not required an SOAB meeting.
Coun Cohen added: “If it’s only been needed six times in five years, I would say that is not an overwhelming burden for it being there.”
“This will have implications on the proper scrutiny on council proposal.
“It offers a unique and separate forum for people working in education looking at proposals. It is independent scrutiny.
The council’s executive member for children Coun Jonathan Pryor (Lab) told the meeting that the law requires public consultations on changes to schools to take no longer than two months.
He added that, should an SOAB meeting be needed, this would mean there would not be enough time to also call the decision in to its larger children’s scrutiny board. This was an issue the council faced in 2018 when SOAB advised against the council’s planned expansion of Moor Allerton Hall Primary School.
Coun Pryor said: “We are not aware of any other local authority that has such internal governance arrangements.
“It is not a coincidence that this has been related to Moor Allerton Hall. It was a process that showed up a lot of issues with the time-frame.
“If SOAB were to continue, reports would need to be exempt from call-in due to exceeding the period of two months.”
The council’s head of children’s services Steve Walker added: “Decisions have to be made within two months or we can refer it out to a school adjudicator who makes those decisions on our behalf.
“Personally, I believe scrutiny in Leeds works very well. It is an open and public meeting – we have the press here and that is a better place for these decisions to be discussed.
“We didn’t spot the time-scale issue until we got to the decision over Moor Allerton Hall.
“The decision was binary – we either have SOAB or we don’t. We have tried at various points to refresh membership. We ended up with the same people coming all the time.”
Coun Jim Mckenna (Lab) spoke of his concerns around the lack of participation from members of SOAB.
He said: “There are nine members but only two generally turn up.
“I would like to know why has it fallen into such disarray. Two out of nine is a very poor turnout, and I question the decisions it has been making with such a low number.
“It seems to me this is a Cinderella organisation that is called on occasionally to make decisions, and it needs to be taken into the modern world.”
Coun Cohen responded: “It is designed to be a small group. I am not saying for one minute that this body does not need some reinvigorating.
“I think the challenge is that it doesn’t seem to have happened. There is scope for a refreshing of this group rather than an abolishing of this group.
“We should pause greatly before we abolish something that’s an independent pair of eyes.”
Chairing the meeting, Coun Alan Lamb said: “I can understand why [the council] made the decision, but I don’t think it has been made in the right way.”
Summing up, Mr Walker told the meeting: “There are considerable changes that have taken place since 2007 and the creation of SOAB.
“The time-scales which were introduced mean that if something goes to SOAB and gets called in, we do not have time to refer it back to executive board, and the decision would be taken by the schools adjudicator who sits outside Leeds.
“The right place to take decision is through scrutiny. We feel it is a more transparent and democratic process.
“If we retain SOAB, the option no longer exists, unless we accept that decisions will be taken outside of Leeds by the schools adjudicator.”
Coun Cohen summed up: “This decision had been thought through only in the first half.
“They have recognised a problem and in the mind of the officers had come up with part of a solution, but not thought about exactly how that would be dealt with going forward.
“It would be taking away – not adding to – independent scrutiny. I have recognised that SOAB does not work perfectly. We need to refresh SOAB or scrutiny board could look at the decisions.
“But in both cases the decision needs finishing off properly.
“Articles in the paper today have been expressing the need for us to find school places. There is going to be a lot of school reorganisation in the city over the next few years and months.
“Without putting a method for carrying it forward in the future is a mistake.”
Councillors voted to release the decision, meaning SOAB will be abolished. But members added recommendations that further discussion was needed as to the future of decision-making on school changes.