Wednesday 21 November 2012

Leighton waves the big stick

Leighton Andrews' announcement of a review of education delivery in Wales has met with a mixed response, but even his biggest critics have to grudgingly admire his willingness to shake things up and wave a big stick at some of the sacred cows which have been happily grazing in his departmental fields.

Earlier this summer he announced a review of the provision of Welsh for Adults, a subject this blog will return to in the near future, and he has also locked horns with the higher education establishment.

A pity that more of his ministerial colleagues don't have the same terrier-like determination to face up to some of the entrenched and very cosy arrangements in local government.

Simon Thomas for Plaid Cymru gave the announcement a cautious welcome, but wondered whether it was right to go ahead with a shake-up of education without tackling the wider problem of local government reform.

The problem Leighton Andrews has is that if he waits for Carl Sargeant and others to act, he will wait for ever.

The question which this latest review will address is whether schools should be left in the hands of the existing 22 local authorities, or whether regional education boards would do a better job.

The minister's line of thought was clear when he made the announcement yesterday:
I have said repeatedly I would not have invented 22 local education authorities. I have also said 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.

I have given local authorities time and money to get their house in order but the evidence is overwhelming that this has not occurred.

Predictably, the response from the Welsh Local Government Association was a sudden rediscovery of the national treasure which is local democracy and the sacred link between our elected representatives (councillors) and our schools.

Although there are councils and many individual councillors who take their responsibilities in education extremely seriously, for a good many people the claim that councillors or even councils are the best guardians of the interests of our children's education is simply laughable. Just ask the people of Llandovery, for example.

As for the WLGA, it is hard to envisage any organisation in Wales which is less democratic or representative. It is bloated, opaque and represents the interests of only a tiny handful of council bigwigs. Thanks to its peculiar make-up 70% of its council members are from the Labour Party, and most of the rest are so-called "Independents", including Carmarthenshire's own unique contributions to local democracy in the form of Cllr Pam Palmer, who if she represents anything, represents everything that is wrong with local government in Wales, and Cllr Mair Stephens.

Whether things would be any better under regional school boards accountable to the Welsh Government remains to be seen, but as Leighton Andrews looks down the roll-call of recent Estyn reports on the 22 local authorities, it is not surprising that he has had enough.

Amongst those labelled unsatisfactory by Estyn are Pembrokeshire, Blaenau Gwent, Anglesey and Torfaen. Only just adequate were Cardiff, Caerphilly and Powys, among others. The list of those achieving a 'B' grade of good includes Swansea, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire.

Not one authority achieved the top grade, and as people in Carmarthenshire know, these Estyn reports on local authorities are rather blunt instruments which are often at odds with the inspectors' more detailed reports on individual schools. The grade awarded to Carmarthenshire erred on the side of generosity, as was evident from the GCSE results which were published a few months later. The reality was that almost all of the neighbouring authorities performed better, whether they are predominantly rural (Ceredigion and Powys) or overwhelmingly urban (Swansea and Neath Port Talbot). Only Pembrokeshire (unsatisfactory) was on a par.

The GCSE results and the way they are reported say a lot about the challenge which Leighton Andrews is facing. No matter how mediocre, every single local authority managed to produce a press release which gave the impression that this year's results were a triumphant vindication of their management of the schools in their care.

Whatever the outcome of this review, one of the greatest services Leighton Andrews could make to education in Wales is to find ways of taking the cancer of PR out of education. Far too many councils, with Carmarthenshire being one of the most obvious examples, are so obsessed with putting out a positive message about their services that they are no longer capable of seeing anything other than success.

Leighton Andrews certainly deserves an A* for effort.

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