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High Court hears challenge to closure of Welsh language primary school

DATE: 29 Jun 2016

For the first time, a decision by a local education authority to close a Welsh-medium primary school has been challenged by judicial review in the High Court: R (Aron Wyn Jones) v Denbighshire County Council (CO/407/2016).

In a public consultation in 2015, Denbighshire County Council announced a proposal to close Ysgol Pentrecelyn, a small village school for some 56 Welsh-speaking pupils, and merge it with a larger bilingual school in the same area, Ysgol Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd, in a new building on a different site. The new school would be a bilingual school, not a Welsh-medium school. In a small rural school, this means that a single teacher alternates between Welsh and English throughout the day to cater for the two “language streams” within the same class.

The Welsh Government’s statutory School Organisation Code requires such school closure proposals to be accompanied by a Welsh Language and Community Impact Assessment (“WLCIA”). In this case, instead of assessing the language and community impact of the Council’s proposal to open a new school on a new site, the WLCIA carried out by the Council only assessed the impact of an ‘interim’ proposal to ‘merge’ the two schools formally for 1 year, but with the pupils to remain on the two existing sites during that period, with no material change in how lessons are delivered. Unsurprisingly, the WLCIA concluded that there would only be very modest language and community impacts from this ‘interim’ proposal.

In their claim for judicial review, campaigners who oppose the closure of Ysgol Pentrecelyn argue that the Council’s decision to implement the ‘interim’ proposal without considering the language and community impacts of the ultimate plan to merge the two schools on a single site was unlawful. They also contend that the Council was unclear and inconsistent about the scope of its consultation, and therefore failed to meet the minimum standards for a fair consultation: see R (Moseley) v Haringey London BC [2014] 1 WLR 3947 at [169].

The case is also significant as it is only the second time, since the High Court was established in 1875, that a party has made written and oral submissions to the court in the Welsh language. This follows the decision of the Welsh Language Commissioner to present her case in Welsh in R (Welsh Language Commissioner) v National Savings and Investments [2014] EWHC 488 (Admin).

The case has been heard by Hickinbottom J and HHJ Milwyn Jarman QC in Mold, assisted by live simultaneous translation. The judgment of the court in both Welsh and English is expected before the end of term.

Gwion Lewis is acting for the campaigners, Ymgyrch Pentrecelyn, with Mr Aron Wyn Jones as the representative claimant. At an earlier hearing, HHJ Milwyn Jarman QC granted the claimant a protective costs order, capping his potential costs liability at £3,000. The Council’s costs liability has been capped at £15,000.

For the BBC’s coverage of the case, please click here.