Whip cracked above heads of local authority leaders

John Osmond hears Education Minister Leighton Andrews threaten a root and branch shake-up of the county councils’ role in education

Education Minister Leighton Andrews laid down the gauntlet to Welsh local authorities last night, demanding that they collaborate in delivering education improvements by September 2012 or face “radical restructuring on a regional basis.”

In a wide-ranging speech to an IWA audience of more than 300 at Cardiff University (available here), Andrews said that the Welsh Inspectorate Estyn was in the process of evaluating all local authorities on their education performance. So far six of the 22 local authorities had been inspected with four reports published:

“Neath Port Talbot was judged to be good across the board. Cardiff  was adequate. Or, to put it another way, barely good enough. There  is a similar story with Wrexham and Powys – the judgement is good  in terms of outcomes but otherwise judged to be adequate in terms  of provision, leadership and management, current performance and  prospects for improvement. It tells the same story – a fair system aiming to become good.”

He said that in March this year he was given assurances by all 22 local authority leaders that a radical overhaul was needed to address the systemic failure in education. The answer was they should collaborate together across four regional partnerships:

“…the political commitment given by all 22 local authorities is that school  improvement regional partnerships will be in place by September 2012.”

Between now and September 2012 he expected to see:

  • Strong leadership.
  • Upfront investment to deliver the agenda.
  • Strong governance.
  • Creation of shadow provision and the appointment of key personnel.
  • Targeting of resources to those schools in most need.
  • Recruitment and deployment of system leaders against national  criteria.
  • Best practice being applied across consortia.

If these were not forthcoming  he made it clear he was prepared to insist on a root and branch shake-up of the local authority role in education. As he put it:

“I am on record as saying that I would not have invented 22 local education authorities. I believe that the fragmentation of education  authorities in the mid-1990s was one of the contributing factors for the downturn in educational performance a decade later, as effective challenge and support was lost in many parts of the  system and time, energy and resource was dissipated.”

The criteria against which he would measure local authority improvement would be

  • Have education standards gone up?
  • Are education services coherent with other services?
  • Are local authorities cost effective? Have they delegated 85 per cent of funding to schools?
  • Is change irreversible? Have milestones been met? Sufficient progress made?

And he added:

“The answers to these questions must be yes. If not, given my responsibility for learners, given my responsibility to parents, given the challenges identified to us by PISA and other evidence, I would not hesitate to follow a different route if the consortia do not deliver.”

The background to this loud sound of a whip cracking above the heads of Welsh local authority leaders was the continuing under performance of Welsh schools which were not improving fast enough. The Education Minister reported that under a new, tougher inspection framework, Estyn was progressively visiting all Welsh schools. So far it had inspected 197 primary schools and 31 secondary schools and the results were extremely disappointing:

“Estyn has found that 97 schools require some sort of follow up, a staggering 42 per cent, about the same for primary and secondary.”

There were common deficiencies across the board:

  • Literacy and numeracy standards and practice.
  • Lack of depth in planning to improve skills.
  • Inconsistency or inadequate assessment.
  • Insufficient challenge from governors.
  • Self-evaluation and improvement planning is often weak.

The Minister reported that a new School Standards Unit within his department had begun work last month to help drive improvement:

“Working with Consortia and local authorities, it will understand  exactly what high performing schools and local authorities are  doing well. It is already starting to underpin our understanding of  how current policy and any changes will impact on performance.  The Unit will carry out priority policy reviews to ensure that policy  is well implemented and having the intended impact, use data to inform discussion on performance and progress and work with  consortia and local authorities to assess capacity and priorities for  improvement.”

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

2 thoughts on “Whip cracked above heads of local authority leaders

  1. There’s nothing more important for the long term growth of the Welsh economy than a high quality education for our children. So it’s good to see the firm action being taken by the Education Minister to improve the performance of our schools. Nevertheless, is he missing a trick? In the public debate on Welsh education in the last year or so, there appears to have been little or no mention of the role of parents. They play a crucial role – a child’s education is surely a partnership between parents and schools. Schools only have access to children for 6-7 hours a day from the age of 4 or 5 onwards, the rest of the time they are the responsibility of parents (whoever is actually looking after them).

    If children have had good pre-school experiences, are healthy, happy, sleep well and have a positive attitude to education (and this is no doubt heavily influenced by parents’ attitudes to education) then schools must be able to educate them much more effectively. Combining measures to improve parenting performance with the proposed measures to improve schools performance could multiply the benefits of the latter.

    The Welsh Government does fund various programmes that support early years development and parenting, such as Flying Start, Cymorth and Incredible Years. At present these are fairly limited in scope, being aimed principally at families in disadvantaged areas or children with particular behavioural problems. There appears to be strong evidence to support the benefits of the Incredible Years programme, but more limited evidence in respect of Flying Start and Cymorth. An outcomes evaluation of Flying Start was due to be completed in “early 2011” but does not appear to have been published yet. Cymorth was evaluated last year, but unfortunately the evaluators were not able to draw any robust conclusions due to the lack of evidence collected as an integral part of the programme. (This appears to be a common problem with Welsh Government programmes in many areas.)

    There was a Welsh Government Parenting Action Plan running between 2005 and 2008 but that does not appear to have been updated. Now is the time to rethink how the Welsh Government can take more extensive evidence-based action to improve the performance of parents and enhance the proposed improvements to schools performance. Our children and our economy will both benefit.

  2. I agree with my namesake above – there are many young parents out there whose own experience of education has not been positive or helpful, and unless we are careful, they will pass those attitudes of low expectation and hostility to their children. I don’t know exactly how they can be converted to pass on a positive view of education to their children, but I’m sure that the effort of engagement has to be started long before school age has arrived. I suggest that a even midwives and health workers have a part to play in evangelising the importance of education. But for that to work, the education system has to bee seen to be improving and succeeding, otherwise no-one will be taken in.

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