School standards: Earlier but less drastic intervention in Wales, says Andrews
New legislation making it easier for Welsh councils to intervene in schools should mean "earlier but less drastic" action, says the education minister.
Leighton Andrews said the proposed bill aimed to help local authorities overcome their reluctance to issue warning notices to failing schools.
The head teachers' union NAHT says a close eye must be kept on how councils use the proposed new powers.
But it broadly welcomed the School Standards and Organisation Bill.
Mr Andrews has expressed concern about schools after critical reports and international comparisons.
Both councils and ministers would find it easier to intervene in failing schools under the law.
The proposed legislation lowers the threshold for councils to issue warning notices to schools deemed to be failing and reinforces their powers to suspend boards of governors.
End Quote Leighton Andrews Education Minister
We have made clear to them our expectations for them to intervene and I hope, therefore, earlier intervention will mean less drastic intervention, in practice.”
Parents would be able to petition governors for meetings, and the law simplifies the process for closing schools with fewer than 10 pupils.
There would also be a legal obligation on councils to have plans to provide sufficient Welsh language places.
There is also a plan to give councils some leeway over the price of school meals, letting them cut the cost for children from big families. At present, every child must be charged the same.
Other changes include requiring local councils to provide free breakfasts for children when primary schools ask for them.
Education authorities would also have a duty to make reasonable provision for an independent counselling service.
Mr Andrews told BBC Radio Wales: "It will simplify the current process for school intervention. The powers are spread among a number of pieces of legislation. I think it's quite complicated for local authorities to find their way through that.'Recipe for trouble'
"We know there's been a reluctance by local authorities to, for example, issue warning notices at an early stage, when they feel that a school is entering difficulties.
"We have made clear to them our expectations for them to intervene and I hope, therefore, earlier intervention will mean less drastic intervention, in practice."
End Quote Chris Howard Former NAHT president
If only 10% of parents in a very small primary school can engender a meeting with governors which might put the career of the head teacher at stake, then we think that's a recipe for some kind of trouble”
The NAHT has said it doubted that all 22 councils in Wales have "the required capacity" for "intelligently informed" interventions to raise standards.
Dr Chris Howard, former president of the NAHT and the head of Lewis School in Pengam, Caerphilly county, said difficulties occurred when a school, parents and the local authority could not agree on the problems and how to deal with them.
He also urged the minister to reconsider the trigger point for parental intervention, replacing the need for an annual meeting of parents and governors.
He said: "If only 10% of parents in a very small primary school can engender a meeting with governors which might put the career of the head teacher at stake, then we think that's a recipe for some kind of trouble.
"We think the benchmark should be higher. No-one would argue that parents have got a huge stake in schools, and need to be given a very large voice in the running of schools.
"But in small schools that 10% benchmark might be too small and I'd like AMs to look at that a bit more closely."'Balance of power'
Conservative education spokeswoman Angela Burns said: "While there are positive aspects within this Bill, it is imperative that this Labour government gets the balance of power correct and the minister resists his apparent temptation to place too much power in his own hands.
"Local education authorities and consortia are already in place across Wales and should be given the elbow room to do their jobs properly."
Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams said: "This is an important piece of legislation and it will need thorough consideration before we can agree to support this bill.
"However, we are willing to work with the government, in areas where we agree, to reform our failing education system."
Plaid Cymru education spokesman Simon Thomas welcomed the legislation, but said he would be concerned if performance banding was used as sign that it was failing before ministers intervene.
Mr Thomas said Plaid was still opposed to any future introduction of primary school banding as it was "destructive and unreliable."