EDUCATION FILE: All change again for Wales’ school system

South Wales Argus: EDUCATION FILE: All change again for Wales’ school system EDUCATION FILE: All change again for Wales’ school system

The past two years has seen a range of reports, investigations, league tables and statistics about Welsh education and its structure. EMMA MACKINTOSH takes a look back through the sea of paperwork.

FOR anyone trying to keep up with the education landscape in Wales, be it in English, Welsh or both, you could be forgiven for getting lost in the fog.

Now that the Williams Commission has delivered its inevitable conclusion — that 22 Welsh local authorities is too many, and must be streamlined, creating much larger authority areas — the Hill Review seems a thing of the distant past, and yet many of its conclusions (and there were many of them) were received as blanks yet to be filled by whatever the Williams Commission had to deliver.

The tenure of Leighton Andrews, the Welsh education minister prior to Huw Lewis, seems even longer ago, but many of the decisions made then are only beginning to be felt now.

Mr Andrews commissioned what was to become known as the Hill Review, a hard, wide-ranging look at education in this country, as set out by Tony Blair’s former advisor Robert Hill.

In June last year Mr Hill completed his task and delivered an eye-watering 85 recommendations to improve many facets of the Welsh education system, namely improving accountability, school leadership and teaching.

Chief among Mr Hill’s recommendations, perhaps because everyone had been anticipating it, given comments made by Mr Andrews back in May about merging Blaenau Gwent’s education department with that of another council, was that the number of local authority education services in Wales could be slashed by a third, from 22 to 15, if the education minister saw fit to agree.

The Argus reported that if they did not merge voluntarily, they could be forced by ministerial intervention, according to the suggestion laid out by Mr Hill.

Improving weaker schools and introducing school ‘scorecards’ were also among the suggestions, but nothing grabbed the headlines so much as the proposal to merge education services across counties.

Four months later the newly crowned education minister agreed with Hill’s call for councils to stop providing school improvement services, and for regional consortia set up to provide those services by local councils to be funded directly by “top-slicing” Welsh Government grants for councils.

But he could not respond to Hill’s call for fewer education departments until the Commission’s conclusions had been submitted.

The head of the Education Achievement Service in South East Wales, Steve Davies, the man effectively tasked with improving education across the five Gwent counties, believes that despite mergers, there will always be a place for locally-provided education services.

With Caerphilly set to join with Torfaen and Blaenau Gwent, and Monmouthshire with Newport, it may have surprised some to notice this week that Blaenau Gwent is advertising for a new director of education. Meanwhile, three of these five education departments (Torfaen, Blaenau Gwent and Monmouthshire) are, for the time being at least, in special measures. Is it simply a matter of time before directorship posts are merged, and the conjoined counties learn from the one in the strongest position?

And what about the impending crisis in Welsh-medium education in Gwent, when Torfaen’s provision fills up and Newport’s Welsh-medium pupils are old enough to go to secondary school?

Of course, now we know that the Williams Commission’s recommendations go even further than cutting from 22 to 15.

The Welsh Government-appointed Commission (which takes its name from its chairman, Paul Williams) said the 22 councils in Wales should be reduced to between 10 and 12 by 2017-18, saving half a billion pounds over a decade.

First Minister Carwyn Jones is looking at the report’s 62 recommendations and deciding what to do next, with commissioners suggesting work should begin to take place as early as this Easter.

That tallies with Mr Hill’s proposal, that education department mergers should be taking place around April 2014.

It’s all about saving money and improving public services by cutting the complexity, insists Mr Williams.

And it’s not a tenuous link to suggest that the number, or make-up, of Wales’ local authorities is closely allied to education, performance, standards and outcomes.

Leighton Andrews previously blamed the creation of 22 authorities in the 1990s on the demise in education standards in Wales.

A drop in standards, regardless of its origins, appears to be borne out by Wales’ world rankings in the recent PISA league table, published in December.

Wales was ranked the worst performing UK nation for maths, science and reading in 2012. Welsh PISA test results for maths and science in 2012 were worse than 2009, but reading had improved slightly.

Education minister Huw Lewis was forthright with his comments about PISA: “Everybody in the Welsh education sector needs to take a long hard look in the mirror. The message is very clear, we must improve.”

With 85 recommendations from Hill already whittled down to a shortlist, and a further 62 from Williams, Welsh Government ministers have a serious of amount of reading on their hands. What will the shape of Welsh education look like by the time they reach the end?

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